Oedipus at Ichetuckneea, etc.

N.B. This is an old post from the previous iteration of this site. I’ve tweaked a few things here and there in the entry, but they are mostly unchanged. My previous website was more of a jobs site, so a lot of the entries are Classics-centric, and that won’t necessarily be the case going forward.

I’ve been sitting and thinking on this one for a while now. At this point, it’s been about a month, so there has been plenty of time for me to reflect on it. Back on 16 Oct., I went to see a very limited-run play here in Gainesville, produced by Santa Fe College Theatre, called Oedipus at Ichetuckneea. It only ran from 15-17 Oct., so it was a brief blip that I almost missed. I can’t remember who told me about it — most likely my wife — but I was thrilled to see a Greek tragedy being produced here in town. The tagline? “Mortals Reap Just What They Sow.”

I’ve seen a great deal of live theatre in the last couple of years in Gainesville at the Hippodrome Theatre (a fantastic venue, with consistently excellent, top-notch productions), but I’ve never really gone to other theatres here. Before I got to Gainesville, I mostly saw small, local, repertory theatre in the Bay Area, which was quite fun as well. Lest I get more sidetracked, though, my point is that we don’t often get many classical productions here in the South, or at least in Gainesville.

In any case, I went with my wife and a couple of good friends, and we really didn’t know what to expect. While it’s nice to go into a play with some foreknowledge of what to expect, I also like to go in with an open mind and to be surprised. The play is based on Oedipus Tyrannus, but the action is updated and translated to a frightening, drought-stricken, near-future North Florida (hence “Ichetuckneea,” named for Ichetucknee Springs). The plague on Ichetuckneea is not just wasting crops and disease, as in ancient Thebes, but also an alarming lack of water, and growing concerns about the pollution of nearby springs.

Parched Ichetuckneea as Thebes (cf. πολυδίψιος Ἄργος), then, serves as a backdrop for the horrors plaguing the house of Labdacus (past and present), and Oedipus’ growing fears that he may be his own father’s murderer, and his mother’s new husband. Throughout the show, faux-news footage, pre-recorded as well as live, on screens, helped serve as exposition to fill in some of the narrative gaps. The chorus involved hip-hop dancing, chanting and singing, with mixed success. Some of the chorus’ parts were really well-done (e.g., dancers chanting their lines behind backlit sheets on the sides of the stage), and in other cases, they didn’t go so well. By no means am I an expert in staging, so I’m not saying I could do better. The chorus is such an integral part of most tragedies, and, of course, staging will differ depending on the play. I’m a little old-fashioned when it comes to these things, I guess. Then again, the chorus in the play did fit with its more modern character, but at times it was jarring and ill-suited for the surrounding material.

As for the principals, they were excellent. The actor playing Oedipus certainly had the necessary pathos for the character, and Jocasta was also appropriately horrified as Oedipus’ interrogation and investigations dragged on. I was especially interested in how they would stage Oedipus’ self-blinding — whether or not they would go a “gory” route, as the text suggests (with Oedipus’ eyes dripping down his face gorily, almost like bloody eggs). They implied gore with practical effects, with dangling “blood” (probably paper, vel sim.) “dripping” down Oedipus’ face near the end. Such an effect ended up being more unsettling, ultimately, than fake stage blood spurting everywhere; that would have come off as boorish and obscene in this particular context (cf. the Hippodrome Theatre’s production of Carrie, A Comedy, which pulled no punches on that front, even warning audiences about a “splash zone” for blood — in that context, it worked swimmingly). As for the others, Creon was a friendly presence, a voice of reason against which Oedipus’ waves of anger and horror could break. The kindly Creon of the Tyrannus is a far cry from the hateful Creon of Antigone or the Oedipus at Colonus. As you might expect, though, Teiresias stole the show. The actor playing him was quite funny and amusing, and of course, if you know the story, it’s certainly interesting to see how it all plays out. Knowing the truth behind Oedipus’ parentage and his unwittingly horrible deeds later in life, and the bitter irony that accompanies all of it, definitely heightens the emotional impact. The audience can be “in on the joke” (a cruel, cruel joke on Oedipus!) with Teiresias, but at the same time, lament the sad fate of Oedipus.

The playwrights clearly have a deep respect for the source material, yet they managed to adapt the story successfully to make it somewhat more relevant for a 21st-century audience. For better or for worse (likely the latter), most people know of Oedipus through Freudian psychology and the “Oedipus complex.” Of course, the Freudian interpretation grossly oversimplifies the story: “Well, you want to marry your mother and kill your father” (cf. the “Electra complex,” its female doppelgänger, where the daughter loves the father and wants to kill her mother). But Oedipus is so much more than that, and arguably, in the original tragedy, he is a victim of cruel Fate and of an atavistic curse on the house of Labdacus, rather than a willing (and witting) participant in the horrors. In my own research, I’ve purposefully not engaged much with the Freudian material, as I think that that line of inquiry has been done to death by others.

As for fidelity to the source material, I found that the dialogue kept remarkably close, mutatis mutandis, to the Greek original. I’ve spent a great deal of time with the Oedipus Tyrannus, and as I listened to the dialogue, corresponding snatches of Greek phrases popped up in my mind. I wrote the first chapter of my dissertation on the Tyrannus, and while I am by no means an expert on every facet of the play, I feel like I’m pretty well-versed in it. I was happy to see that this play adhered closely to the original dialogue, while little, unobtrusive adjustments were made to modernize the play. Referring to the Delphic Oracle as an “artificial intelligence” was quite cheeky and fun, and I couldn’t help but think of the present-day IT company, Oracle (doubtless inspired by the ancient oracles itself).

All in all, it was a nice night out, and I was happy to see a play that examined the modern world through an ancient lens. As I mentioned earlier, we so rarely get to see the Classics in theatre, at least here in Gainesville, so I rather appreciated the opportunity. I’d like to see more similar productions, if possible. At SCS/AIA in New Orleans, for example, back in January, there was a staged reading of Anne Carson’s Antigonick, a very free-form, modernist adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. It was a little too modern for me, but it was quite an experience to see the playwright herself, along with relatively well-known classicists, acting out such a heart-wrenching and timeless story. We’ll see if there are any interesting performances at SCS 2016.

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