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2013 Oedipus the King


The 43rd Annual Classical Greek Theater Festival


In September of 2013, The Classical Greek Theater Festival of Westminster
College mounted and toured a new production of Sophocles’ tragic masterpiece Oedipus
the King
. As many know, the play follows Oedipus’ journey to discover the source of the
plague affecting Thebes, the killer of the old king Laius, and the truth of his own identity.


“In its 43rd year running the Classical Greek Theater Festival of Utah returned, as it has
every decade or so, to that most celebrated of Athenian tragedies, Sophocles’ Oedipus
the King. Performed during a three-week run at an impressive array of locations across
Utah, both in and out of doors, the ambitious production focused on the essentials of
good Greek drama: character, action, pity, fear, and suffering.

Not that theatrical spectacle was neglected. The show’s director, University of Utah
theatre professor Sandra Shotwell, made use of convertible robes to transform, in a
moment, a certain anonymous Theban chorus member into the prophet Tiresias,
another into Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, etc. This was an elegant alternative to the
extended entrances which, although a defining feature of Greek drama, are regularly
uncomfortable for modern audiences as they patiently wait for the blind seer to traverse
many yards on his way to the stage.

The production in general formidably maintained that which is distinctive from Greek
tragedy (such as a singing and dancing chorus, actors’ use of large and stately
gestures, etc.) without alienating the audience, which is a recurrent danger when
pursuing a historically informed performance. This Oedipus consistently struck the right
balance. For example, choral songs were accompanied by an oboe, an originalist nod
to the Greek aulos, a double-reed instrument which accompanied ancient tragic and
dithyrambic performances. However, the show’s original score was composed in a
modern European mode, with common pitch intervals and melodic structures that were
familiar to performers and audience alike. Such devices and decisions, from music to
costume to character, helped make the performance an Oedipus for our age. We
audience members were invited to see Oedipus’ struggle for justice, prosperity, and
above all self-knowledge as our own.

As the show’s dramaturge and longtime impresario of the Classical Greek Theatre
Festival Jim Svendsen noted in his introduction to the performance, Sophocles’ Oedipus
the King not only offers an unmatched window into the minds and hearts of Athenians
during the fifth century BCE; it also holds a mirror up to the achievements—as well as
the strife, pride, and ignorance—we see around us today.”

- Al Duncan, U of Utah


“Jim Svendsen, Artistic Director and Dramaturge, gave a scintillating lecture in the
Fireplace Lounge, Weber State University, on Wednesday, September 25, 2013, to
introduce Westminster's memorable production of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, in the
Wildcat Theater. Of the more than twenty Greek plays I've seen performed in Ogden,
this one was the best overall performance. Translated by Marianne McDonald into a
lively and fast-paced "American English," both the actors and members of the Chorus
delivered their lines clearly enunciating the words and projecting their voices in such a
way that the audience felt drawn in to the play.

Sandra Shotwell is the consummate director! Ryon Sharette (Oedipus) and Elizabeth
Summerhays (Jacosta) were supercharged with emotion, especially in the scene where
Jocasta gradually learns who Oedipus really is--and the revulsion she experiences from
that epiphany. Nikola Muckajev (Tiresias) and Michael Calacino (Creon) also gave
memorable performances. Solange Gomes (Choreographer) made the Chorus truly "the
voice of the people" in both song and dance, several actors moving in and out of the
Chorus effectively by a simple on-stage changing of costumes. Cathy Neff (Composer)
worked closely with Jim Svendsen, Sandra Shotwell, and Solange Gomes to compose
music "that grew out of the feeling of the text." My hat is off to all who made the evening
(lecture and play) such an enjoyable experience!”

- Bob Hogge, WSU

OEDIPUS THE KING is an eye-popping tragedy
September 8, 2013 by Russell Warne
SALT LAKE CITY — At the end of Westminster College’s production of Oedipus the
King, a chorus of nine actors sang the haunting words, “Call no man happy until that
person dies free from sorrow.” In other words, no matter how prosperous a person seems
to be, until death it is always possible that a single tragedy could wipe out his happiness.
Oedipus the King is an ancient Greek tragedy about the king of Thebes, a great city
which has been beset by tragedy. When Creon (Oedipus’s brother-in-law, played by
Michael Calicino) returns from the oracle at Delphi, he explains that the gods have said
through an oracle that the previous king’s murderer is in Thebes and must be executed in
order for Thebes to find peace again. Written by Sophocles, it is probably the most
famous surviving Greek tragedy and has political and personal themes that resonate
today. Presented by the Classical Ancient Greek Theatre Festival, this production will be
touring Utah this month, bringing some of the world’s oldest drama to local audiences.
Dominating the production is Ryon Sharette as Oedipus. Sharette had a characteristic that
I look for in an actor playing a king: dignity. Sharette’s characterization of Oedipus
started the play at the apex of his power and esteem. This made his eventual downfall
more tragic and emphasized the ephemeral nature of wealth and power. Sharette was at
his best when interacting with the other male characters in the play: Oedipus’s battle of
wills with the blind priest (Connor Montgomery) was a highlight of the play, and the
confrontation with Creon provided enough dramatic tension to keep my interest for the
middle section of the play.

I wasn’t as interested in Elizabeth Summerhay‘s performance as Jocasta, Oedipus’s wife.
For the most part, Summerhays displayed a very limited range of emotion and reactions
that were so subtle that many were lost to me, even though I was only sitting on the third
row. This made it feel like Summerhays didn’t give Sharette a lot to work with, giving
their scenes together a similar tone to those of Oedipus’s monologues (of which there are
already plenty in the script). Summerhays did much to redeem herself in her final
moments as Jocasta, but overall I wish that the only female character in the play had been
more interesting.

However, Calacino’s portrayal of the priest was fascinating because of the strong
personality that Calacino gave his character. Calacino correctly understood that the priest,
because of the supernatural understanding of the world, could provide the first challenge
to Oedipus’s hubris. Calacino showed this through a commanding voice, and the product
of his performance was a strong setup of the play’s central conflict.

Director Sandra Shotwell’s goal with this production was to create a play that would be
faithful to the conventions of ancient Greek theatre and show the audience why Oedipus
the King is so revered in Western culture. In this she largely succeeded. Although some
aspects of ancient Greek theatre (like the masks) are missing, the important pieces are
there: the chorus, the limited number of speaking characters on stage at once, the direct
addresses to the audience, and more. Thanks to Shotwell’s direction (and Marianne
McDonald’s clear translation of the script), a background in theatre history or the text of
the play is not necessary to understand this production.

The major downside with Shotwell’s directorial choices is that faithfulness to ancient
Greek theatrical conventions makes the production less accessible to modern audiences.
Those who may have attended last year’s production of Antigone were given a more
accessible production set in modern times with contemporary costuming, props, and
music that all combined to make the script relevant to today. By maintaining fidelity to
ancient Greek performance tradition, Shotwell has created a work that is much closer to a
museum piece than last year’s Antigone and therefore difficult for modern audiences to
relate to. However, the chorus was the major saving grace in making the production
accessible. The nine actors—in excellent Greek fashion—effectively told the audience
how to feel, what to think, and provided helpful commentary on the action. While their
songs sometimes went on too long (and the choreography by Solange Gomes was
understated by modern musical theatre standards), the chorus of Oedipus the King was an
ideal example of what an ancient Greek chorus should be.

The emphasis of this production is on Sophocles’s 2400-year-old script, so the technical
elements are pretty sparse (and some, like the lighting won’t even be present in
performances at some of their other locations). Valerie Nishiguchi‘s costumes were most
prominent, and all of them delineated social class of characters well and were functional
enough for the chorus actors to easily dance in. Moreover, Nishiguchi wisely eschewed
stereotypical Greek togas (as seen in the Festival’s Iphigenia in Tauris two years ago) and
instead provided a wide variety of robes, tunics, and other costume pieces that seemed
more realistic. The music (composed by Cathy Neff and performed by oboist Hilary
Coon) was pleasing and never strayed into the realm of tunelessness (again, unlike
Iphigenia in Tauris) or repetitiveness.

Overall, though, Oedipus the King is a production that I would recommend to students
and others interested in ancient Greek theatre and seeing a culturally influential play.
However, the play has its boring moments that arise from the 2,400-year gulf between
modern American and ancient Greece—a difference in cultures that may be too difficult
to overcome. But for some people it will be worth the challenge to attend Oedipus the
King, and this play, unlike its title character, certainly has no fatal flaws that should keep
anyone away from it.

- Russell Warne, Utah Theatre Bloggers