Theater Review: ‘Oedipus Rex’ at Chicago’s Court Theatre

A Tragedy: A production that comes so close to wonderment
November 22, 2019 Updated: December 16, 2019
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CHICAGO—Any time a theater produces a classic that ultimately says, when we confront social ills, that we should look within our own breasts—that the search for inner truth is paramount—this is a theater we should treasure.

Court Theatre should also be congratulated for planning its community-based approach to staging the whole Oedipus Trilogy this season. As the program notes explain, the hope is to explore, with the city’s predominantly black South Side residents, the themes of fate, justice, and redemption.

My praise stated upfront, the production of the first of the three plays, “Oedipus Rex,” misses as often as it hits its mark, though not for a lack of talent, and not because the creators didn’t try to be true to the text.

Driven by a Quest for Truth

King Oedipus had once saved Thebes from that cursed monster the Sphinx. Now, years later, through his heartfelt desire to relieve the suffering of his plague-stricken people, the king tries to discover exactly who murdered the previous king of Thebes. Why this quest? An oracle from the god Apollo commands that the murderer be found and punished so that Thebes can be delivered from pestilence.

But the deeper reason for Oedipus’s search is spiritual. Not only is it a king’s duty to protect his people, but a god has made Oedipus’s path clear, and moreover, this particular king feels compelled to seek the truth, even if it costs him dearly in a worldly sense.

The king simply wants to know the truth, and it is this desire (through a series of interviews) that propels all of the play’s action—despite the fact that everyone he talks to seems intent on stopping him. This includes the prophet Teiresias; a shepherd; and even his wife, Queen Jocasta.

The Production Highs

Sophocles’s “Oedipus Rex” is rightly considered a model for economy of plot. In just a few scenes, the protagonist moves from ignorance to full knowledge of his sinsthat he murdered his father and married his motherand there is little in it that is extraneous. Given how distilled it is, the play jabs, punches, and can leave one breathless.

The late Nicholas Rudall’s translation masterfully accommodates our modern ears. It’s powerful and, at times, beautiful.

The cast is more than able to make the script sing. Kelvin Roston Jr. as Oedipus handles the language, carries himself with requisite nobility, and has the depth to carry the emotional trajectory from compassion to anger to anguish. Much the same can be said of the rest of the cast.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., Kate Collins in Oedipus Rex
Kelvin Roston Jr. as Oedipus and Kate Collins as Jocasta in “Oedipus Rex.” (Michael Brosilow)

Surprisingly and much to its credit, the script allows the actors to wring out humor. Who would think that the blind prophet Teiresias, terrorized by an incensed king, could draw laughs? But Christopher Donahue’s impeccable timing does just that.

Timothy Edward Kane as Creon elicits chuckles when he tries to persuade the king that, as the king’s brother-in-law, he reaps all the benefits of royalty with none of its headaches. So why would Creon undermine Oedipus to gain the throne? Hard to argue with that.

And when Oedipus and Jocasta learn, mistakenly, that he could not possibly have killed his father and married his mother, director Charles Newell has Roston and Kate Collins as Jocasta howl with laughter in relief. It’s a brilliant choice, and it’s a scene that rings as contemporarily apt and yet eternally profound.

Kelvin Roston, Jr., Christopher Donahue (center) Photo by Michael Brosilow (1)
Oedipus (Kelvin Roston Jr.) and Teiresias (Christopher Donahue), the prophet who forewarns that the king will soon face horrible regret, surrounded by the cast. (Michael Brosilow)

Other acting standouts include Mark Spates Smith, who radiates wisdom as the choral leader; Sheldon D. Brown as a priest whose beautiful voice enthralls us; and Stef Tovar as the shepherd, who quakes in the desperate king’s presence.

Complementing the action are costumes by Jacqueline Firkins. The gauzy white scarves and tunics of the chorus contrast with the opulent sheen of the royal garb: Jocasta in gold, Creon in silver, and setting him dramatically apart, Oedipus in a magnificent magenta robe. All are gorgeous.

With a fine script, sumptuous accessories, and a cast that shines, how could this production miss the mark?

A Tragedy: Let’s Throw In Some Modernism

The set is the clue that this production will tend toward expressionism—the strain of modernism that externalizes emotions. The stark white walls of the unit set look like a royal padded cell—beautiful, yes, with its glistening finish, and I suppose one could make the case that what Oedipus endures could drive anyone to madness.

Aeriel Williams, Kelvin Roston, Jr. (center) and the cast of Oedipus Rex
Oedipus (Kelvin Roston Jr.) and his daughter Antigone (Aeriel Williams) (center) and the cast, in the final moments of “Oedipus Rex.” (Michael Brosilow)

The Greek chorus uses expressionism throughout. When the lights first come up and the chorus silently process to their places, they go down on all fours and begin convulsing in a rhythmical pattern as tortured plague victims. They offer a compelling opening. We buy it.

Throughout the opening scene, they continue to physicalize their reactions. For example, when a character mentions the despised word “Sphinx,” they, as Theban citizens, react with simultaneous twitches of horror. This meaning is clear to the audience.

We are even treated to the chorus’s frantic actions amid strobe lights to show us Oedipus’s inner turmoil. But believe me, we don’t need it. The play and actors are more than capable of transmitting it to us.

As the play progresses and each choral scene becomes more and more stylized with expressionist movement, externalizing for us what we would best be internalizing for ourselves, the meaning becomes increasingly difficult to decipher.

This is not to say that theater, any more than any other art, should spell out everything. It would be a lecture then, and not art, and art should capture some of the mystery of life.

But there’s just too much of mystery here, and we are focused on it for too long. As a result, we are thrown out of the searing action that provokes the heart into the cerebral landscape of whys: Why are two of the chorus actors holding lit orbs? Why is the actress rolling on the floor with an orb and acting like a child with a ball? Is this orb Apollo’s sun? Is this meant to break the tension before the awful truth emerges in the next scene?

In the following scene, when the storyline re-emerges and Oedipus stands again before us, we’ve unfortunately lost our connection to what we’ve felt for him and must wait to feel it. And this happens over and over again.

Aeriel Williams, Kelvin Roston, Jr., Timothy Edward Kane
Oedipus (Kelvin Roston Jr.) and his daughter Antigone (Aeriel Williams) with Creon (Timothy Edward Kane) in back. (Michael Brosilow)

I watched the chorus members in these scenes—the scenes with the actual storytelling—and I envied them. They were actually feeling Oedipus’s pain. I could not.

The saving grace for this production comes at the very end. Oedipus, his daughter Antigone (Aeriel Williams), and the choral leader (Mark Spates Smith) sing together, harmonizing in pianissimo tones. The music restores to us, to some degree, the feeling of compassion for this man and his fate.

But I can imagine just how much more powerful the story would have been if the actors and the scripts had been trusted.

 ‘Oedipus Rex’
Court Theatre
5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago
Tickets: 773-753-4472 or CourtTheatre.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes (no intermission)
Closes:  Dec. 8