by Ned Dickens, derived from Seneca's Oedipus.
Produced by Die in Debt in association with Nightwood Theatre.
Under the Gardner Expressway, at Strachan Avenue.
August 5-21, 1994.
Reviewed by Libby Smigel,
Department of English and Comparative Literature,
Hobart and William Smith Colleges,
For a second year, Die in Debt theatre company has taken a classical play and updated it by setting it in an outdoor environment in downtown Toronto. The company hopes that its environmental productions can bring timeless themes and problems into sharp focus, and thus provide contemporary commentary on social and political ills.
In a pre-production interview, Die in Debt's producer/designer Troy Hansen said that the company chose the Oedipus myth for its global statement about the environment and the failure of political leaders to take responsibility. He compared the plagues besieging Thebes because of Oedipus's actions to the destruction of the rainforests and the ozone layer caused by the negligence of political and economic leaders. As high-minded as the motives for the project may have been, however, the production itself obscures the modern metaphors.
Hansen designed a towering pyramid-shaped structure of stark white blocks that formed four playing levels. With the frame of heavy pillars supporting the Expressway overhead, classical and contemporary were united. Abandoned railway ties served as a runway for entrances into the dirt arena at the foot of the design, an orchestra-like domain for the chorus. The design dominated the space and, with the impressionistic versions of classical garments and stylized acting, seemed to simulate the pageantry of earlier classical imitators such as Max Reinhardt, Gordon Craig, or Jaques-Dalcroze.
At moments the action was served well by the environmental setting and design. In anticipation of Creon's entrance, his troops could be seen in the distance, loping behind a torch-bearer on a far-off bridge, before they descended down the slopes into the arena. Then as Creon conferred with Oedipus on the platforms of the pyramid, his sentries stood guard below. But beyond the alluring stage pictures created by director Sarah Stanley, this production suffered from the same ailment as the early pageants. The primacy of the design features stressed the visual at the expense of the aural; the vastness of the space overmatched the sound amplification system to the point that much of the three hours of poetry was lost. The play became a series of heroic gestures, a mimetic spectacle.
Attempts to reinterpret ancient drama for modern audiences should be encouraged. Ned Dickens's version, however, did little to fulfill the production's objectives. Dickens has said he turned to Seneca's play for its 'visceral' energy and imagery: he retained the Roman play's onstage action of Jocasta stabbing herself in her womb, for example. But Dickens chose to delete Oedipus's opening soliloquy in which he is stricken with self-doubt and suspects the city's pestilence is attributable somehow to himself. Such an opening might have helped to clarify the knowing culpability of leaders whose constituencies suffer. Instead, Dickens followed the Sophoclean character development and introduced a self-important Oedipus. In another departure from the classical prototypes, Dickens split the choral voice into an array of medieval humors, creating warring individuals within a choral populace as self-interested and corrupt as the leaders. Stanley's production objective--to offer a ray of hope, a spirit of redemption--could not be realized with characterizations so fragmented.
Libby Smigel is an Assistant Professor ot Theatre at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.