Actors impress in ancient play, “The Oedipus Story”

10 years ago Triangle 0

Kaity Kopeski

The Hilltop Players began their season with the ancient Greek play "Oedipus."/Photo courtesy of assistant theater professor Jared Cole
The Hilltop Players began their season with the ancient Greek play "Oedipus."/Photo courtesy of assistant theater professor Jared Cole

A Greek play written 2,500 years ago doesn’t initially excite me, but since I enjoy the Bryan Hilltop Players productions, I decided to give Sophocles a chance and attend “The Oedipus Story,” performed last Wednesday through Saturday. The play, especially the first half, was entertaining, which is a testament more to the talent of the actors rather than the writing of Sophocles.

What I remembered about Oedipus was a vague mix of high school English and Freud’s famous Oedipus complex. When I read that the Hilltop players were producing Oedipus, I was curiously confused. Why would Bryan produce a play about a king who sleeps with his mother? And how, with all that chorus chattering, will this be remotely interesting? I was intrigued enough to attend, along with around 100 others, on Saturday night for the final performance.

The play begins with “Oedipus at Rex.” The chorus, all wearing white masks, calls in unison for King Oedipus. Oedipus, played by senior Beau Boutwell, appears on the stage and the plot begins. The kingdom has been cursed because of a prophecy about a King’s son who would kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus, who doesn’t know his real heritage, is determined on finding the truth. With every new piece of information about Oedipus’s past, the plot escalates to the climax when Oedipus finds that it is he who has blindly committed these sins and brought the curse upon his kingdom. His wife, also his mother, hangs herself. Oedipus gouges out his eyes and banishes himself from the city. This concludes the first half.

Although the plot is predictable, it is still dramatic, and the actors pulled the audience into the production. The stage was a thrust stage, which means that three sides of the stage extended into the audience. The farthest audience member was only four rows back from the stage,and the actors entered and exited through the audience. All these elements created an “intimacy” between actors and audience, according to Jared Cole, assistant professor and theater fellow, who directed the play.

The masks, worn by all actors, were another unique addition to the play. Initially I didn’t like the masks. They were on the creepy side, and I am used to reading emotions by facial expressions, which wasn’t possible. Masks are more than an annoyance for actors; they create a problem. How do you express emotions without your face? One way is through presentational acting, which is typical of Greek theater. According to Cole, presentational acting is more about telling the story than being realistic.

“Everything in a play like this is a little louder, a little bigger, a little more obvious than the subtleties that we’ve come to expect in modern theater,” Boutwell said.

Wearing masks, along with the thrust stage, were two unique features of the Oedipus play./Photo courtesy of assistant theater professor Jared Cole
Wearing masks, along with the thrust stage, were two unique features of the Oedipus play./Photo courtesy of assistant theater professor Jared Cole

While this acting style isn’t my favorite, for this play, which relies so heavily on words, often ancient wording that at times was difficult to understand, the style worked well. At one point in the play Oedipus’ wife, Jocasta, played by sophomore Ashley Boyd, is pleading with Oedipus. Her back was turned to me, so I just watched her hands grow tense and relax with each falling and rising emotion. I didn’t need to hear the words to know what she was feeling; I was enthralled.

This type of acting, by Boyd and others, carried the play even through the slower moments. The second half of the play, “Oedipus at Colonus,” is a less familiar story but gives closure to the first half. In this second half Oedipus forgives himself of past sins, is forgiven by the gods and is able to die in honor.

“It’s a more redemptive side of Oedipus,” said Cole.

During this second half I realized that “The Oedipus Story” isn’t simply a strange story about violence and incest, but a story about honor, which runs deep in the Greek culture.

Even so, Oedipus isn’t a play I would watch multiple times for fun. Each half lasted about 60 minutes and required constant attention. There was no comic relief, and I felt a bit drained after watching.

The cast, who did four performances, prepared for weeks. Their dedication was obvious. Boutwell was almost flawless, with literally hundreds of lines to memorize. He credits senior Justin Winters, assistant director, for “unlocking his character” and helping him memorize lines.

“I had to stop trying to memorize what line goes where and focus on telling the audience the story. Once I learned this, I eventually began to fall into the lines,” he said.

While Oedipus had the largest part, every character had numerous lines to memorize. The chorus often spoke in unison with unified body movements.

There were times throughout this play when I was confused because of the outdated language, cultural references or sheer lack of attention. However, the majority of the time I was captivated by the dramatic story, and the entire time I was thoroughly impressed by the actors.