Despite the oppressive heat, the abundance of hungry mosquitoes, and the young couple behind me rudely whispering during the entire length of the performance, I not only enjoyed but admired Saturday's presentation of Genesius Guild's Oedipus Rex. Director Dori Foster's dynamic staging - which is especially dynamic for a Greek tragedy performed mostly in masks - and the cast's impressive ability to emote without the benefit of facial expressions were well worth the night's distractions.
Sophocles' play about accidental incest is a familiar tale to many, but one I don't mind seeing staged repeatedly. Here, Gary Adkins is a powerhouse in the leading role, frighteningly domineering when angry or ruling as the king, and convincingly frightened by the fated possibilities of killing his father and marrying his mother. As the truth - that the king he killed was actually his father - is revelaed, and his current wife begins to realize that Oedipus, now her husband, is also her son, Emma Simmons' regal countenance slowly crumbles as her Iocaste descends into shock and shame.
Both actors elicit sympathy for their plights as we watch their limbs lose their strength, each aware of how they've mistakenly succumbed to their deplorable destinies. These are not fates they willingly accept, but fates that damn their souls with horrific, self-executed consequences. And despite my knowledge of what was to come, I still found myself almost weeping for Oedipus and Iocaste, as Adkins and Simmons make it clear that their characters were powerless against fate, and agree that their actions were, and are, reprehensible.
Meanwhile, future actors in the Guild's Greek tragedies could take a cue from Neil Tunnicliff. Though all of Oedipus Rex's masked characters - notably Jason Dlouhy's Priest, Michael Phillips' Shepherd, and Doug Adkins' Corinthian Messenger - boast performers who act beyond the limitations of their masks, Tunnicliff's portrayal is the clearest. As Tieresias, the blind priest whom Oedipus initially asks for help in finding the murderer of King Laius, Tunnicliff appears to take everything he would put into facial expressiveness and channels it through his limbs and voice. The thought and feeling in his lines are so clear that it's as if Tunnicliff isn't wearing a mask at all, and as a result he's enthralling.
Foster's staging is nearly as spirited as Tunnicliff. Rather than shuffling the chorus and leads on stage to stand about in formation, Foster sets them in motion - particularly the principals, whose movements exude true purpose of character. While this might seem a sort of "Directing 101" praise, her work is notable here because Greek tragedy seems to frequently inspire a more formal placement of cast members, and Foster avoids directing in that mold. This is clear from the opening scene in which Oedipus is flanked by several chorus members; while positioned symmetrically, there's enough variance in their individual states of despair that you sense a clear element of freedom within the formality. And after this scene ends, and throughout the play, the motions and interactions of the main characters convey palpable chemistry as their actors connect physically, and not just vocally.
Overall, there's an ever-present sense of depressive foreboding in this production that emanates even from scenic designer Earl Strupp's set. He's painted the wings to look like cracking walls, but chose to highlight the cracks in red, so the effect suggests bleeding wounds - that the sins of Oedipus have rooted into the very fabric of his city.
Beyond its subject matter, I saw few "sins" in Genesius Guild's staging of Oedipus Rex. The depth of Sophocles' story is enough to warrant a viewing, but Foster and her cast make this incestuous tragedy even more beautiful to behold.
Oedipus Rex runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue and 38th Street, Rock Island) through July 26, and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.