Sure, it's the Greek tragedy to end all Greek tragedies. But is any stage tragedy, Greek or otherwise, as unashamedly, wickedly enjoyable as that of the fall of Oedipus?
Generally speaking, even those who haven't seen or read versions of Sophocles' Oedipus legend are familiar with its story, and this classical tale of the Theban ruler who tries to outwit fate - only to find his hubris inadvertently (and inevitably) causing absolute ruin - is so horrific yet perfectly constructed that its escalating tension is inseparable from its escalating thrill. Knowing the work as we do, we desperately want to see this proud, vain king get exactly what's coming to him, and the road to Oedipus' self-awareness is so dramatically, luridly charged that it's like the B.C. forerunner to a juicy James M. Cain novel; despite the murder, suicide, incest, and self-mutilation, it's the only Greek tragedy I can think of in which muted giggles seem a perfectly appropriate response.
In the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's current production of Oedipus Rex, director Steve Quartell, who also wrote the adaptation, certainly appears to understand this. He treats the Oedipus tale (mostly) seriously, yet among the show's many fascinating elements, its most intriguing is Quartell's willingness to present the material as close to tongue-in-cheek as he can without it lapsing into full-scale self-parody. (The director, here, might be saying, "You and I both know how this story goes, so let's have some fun with it.") That's not to suggest that this Oedipus Rex is a lark, and the portrayals of Eddie Staver III as Oedipus, Pat Flaherty as Creon, and Denise Yoder as Jocasta are, in the end, anguished and affecting. But this Harrison Hilltop updating of the Oedipus legend adds an unexpected level of playfulness to the proceedings, and what results is a Greek tragedy in which you know what's going to happen next but aren't quite sure how it'll happen; it's an Oedipus Rex to give you the giggles, and they might not be completely muted ones.
If you've run across posters for the show - especially the ones designed with the John McCain- and Barack Obama-inspired lettering - it won't surprise you to learn that Quartell has transplanted the Oedipus legend to a modern-day setting, or that Oedipus is presented as a smiling, earnest, a-little-untrustworthy-but-I-can't-pinpoint-why type of politician. Yet in the first of the production's many sensational touches, our introduction to the man comes not in the flesh, but in a taped 30-second TV spot in which Oedipus stares into the camera and makes bland assertions about leading and protecting, all the while subtly demanding our continued support. (Of course, as he's king, viewers don't really have much choice in the matter.) Shot by Dave Whiskeyman, this mini-film looks beautiful, and Staver performs it with a mock sincerity that's both funny and chilling; even if, by some miracle, you didn't know the Oedipus story in advance, you'd be more than ready to see this ultra-confident smoothie taken down a peg or two.
Oedipus Rex's multimedia enhancements, however, only begin with this faux ad. Afterward, we're presented with the on-screen sight of a television newscaster (played by Melissa Coulter) discussing the king's legacy and leadership with a political whiz (Justin Marxen), an interview abruptly cut short by news that the king's press conference is about to begin ... in the Harrison Hilltop Theatre. From that point on, the play's narrative vacillates between the live drama of Oedipus' plight (in which the audience is initially cast as fellow attendees of this town hall meeting) and taped, televised reactions to the drama (in which reporters, political experts, and random passersby comment on the tragedy-in-the-making), and it's all so clever and deliriously meta that this greatly entertaining, hour (plus)-long production zips by in a flash.
The show's presentational style is not, however, devoid of pitfalls. Though the filmed segments are wonderfully well produced and edited, and boast a slew of recognizable talents - in addition to Coulter and Marxen, James Bleecker, Joshua Kahn, J. Adam Lounsberry, Adam Overberg, Jason Platt, Tristan Tapscott, and Quartell himself all make appearances - a few of these actors are too self-consciously on; forcing their "realness," they seem less like people, or even characters, than Special Guest Stars dropped in as local-theatre in-jokes. And on at least a couple of occasions, the switch from stage action to filmed action is unintentionally (I think) humorous, as when Jocasta's heartbreaking exit leads to some jokey man-on-the-street interviews, or when a palace staff member (an effectively pained Wendy Czekalski) rushes in to inform the play's Chorus figures of the queen's death, and they, in unison, reply, "We know," revealing that they watched the coverage on TV. (It's like a gag from Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite, but it's perhaps not meant to be one.)
Still, such lapses are infrequent and, given the strength of Oedipus Rex as a whole, relatively meaningless. Quartell's adaptation, while intentionally lacking in poetry, is a fantastically straightforward telling of the tale, filled with drive and strong dialogue, and the cast is utterly superb. Staver handles his transition from supremely controlled world-beater to pitiful, bloody wreck with emotional economy and fluidity; those exceptional classical performers Flaherty and Michael King (portraying a startlingly provocative, even antagonistic Tiberias) employ their richly expressive voices and unwavering conviction to powerful effect; and Yoder's intensely subtle meltdown is truly haunting, with her tearful, angst-ridden whisper of "My child ... " lingering long after she leaves the stage. It's among the finest pieces of acting I've yet seen this gifted performer deliver.
With Molly McLaughlin, Matt Mercer, and Mark and Linda Ruebling offering unforced, touching support as fellow citizens of Thebes, and technical director Tapscott orchestrating the show's evocative lighting effects, this is a wholly engaging shaking up of this timeless piece. And I'll offer an additional huzzah: Due to weekend scheduling conflicts, I caught the production during a final-dress preview on Wednesday, and despite some obvious, understandable tinkering with lighting - and the absence of a curtain call - I found Oedipus Rex to be in such first-rate technical and performance shape that only the lack of a full audience suggested it was a rehearsal. I'm hoping it'll be the last unfilled house the show plays to.
For tickets and information, call (309)235-1654 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.