“I still couldn’t say whose tragedy this was ... is ... or if it even is a tragedy ... does it belong to the people suffering, or those watching them suffer?”
So Jen (Carrie Paff) muses in a single shaft of light in the darkness of the Aurora Theatre, prefacing—or looking back on?—the theatrical events of auditioning for, rehearsing and performing Oedipus Rex in Cambridge, Mass., and the extratheatrical dialogues and dramas that swirl around the production, in Craig Lucas’ Small Tragedy.
The cast of characters assembled as the cast of characters for Oedipus get into it almost immediately and every which way with each other, engaging with their own subtexts as much as their classic text.
Nate’s (Mark Anderson Phillips) the kind of director who answers a question with a question, though he seems to eschew the psychological, lashing out at young, slangy Fanny (Rebecca Schweitzer), playing a Theban Elder chorine, when she says she had a similar problem with AA as she does with Sophocles, not believing in god or a higher power.
Many of the questions Nate parries with yet another come from his acerbic wife Paola (Amy Resnick), Fanny’s fellow Elder. The couple’s marital woes add to the jerky progress of rehearsal, as do fay Christmas’ (Greg Ayers) jagged, dyslexic line readings as androgynous prophet Teiresias (rehearsing with a blindfold on “just to see what it’s like”) and a drama queen messenger of doom.
Jen, Fanny’s uneasy roommate, is returning to the stage after putting her now-ex-husband through medical school, has scored the role of Jocasta, and is reduced to tears by Nate, not only directing, but playing Creon, her brother.
In the title role is the mysterious Bosnian, Hakiya (Matteo Troncone), attractive and/or repulsive to the rest of the cast, deadpan (either brooding or baiting, it’s unclear which) offstage, when asked about his past in the troubles back home, and hotter than a pistol onstage as the proud tragic hero.
Kent Nicholson directs his excellent ensemble well, as they use every inch of the stage and the hall’s entrances, rehearsing or socializing at the bar, with simultaneous and overlapping dialogue that’s been compared to a Welles or an Altman film soundtrack, but at times is even denser and loopier.
It’s Lucas’ wit that gives the audience the opportunity to pick out little ambiguities and ironies across the board, which spans chit-chat, trash talk, unsolicited advice, put-downs, line readings, monologues, and stories. Lucas seems to be parodying Greek stichomythia, the dialogue of classical Tragedy that revealed the truth through the irony of interstices, by putting American smalltalk into a dramatic mixmaster.
The play is finally—and impressively—staged in snippets for us; the lines and fragments of scenes now only slightly oblique commentary on the ambiguous (or just sloppy) relationships we’ve seen develop in rehearsal.
“What would it take for your own story to change, to be tragic?” a driven Nate has asked his actors and a good deal starts to change, or at least come apart with an at first exhuberant cast party playing a party game, Yes or No.
Just as there was a brief prologue, there’s a rather lengthy epilogue, set in a NYC apartment. Just as the switch to onstage action from rehearsal was finely contrasted by both stage direction and the lights (Christopher Studley) and costumery (Cassandra Carpenter), so the move to real life for thespians in the Big Apple is adroitly represented by a change in costumes and a filling out of the previously stark set of rehearsal hall, bar and stage with all the comforts of urbanness (Melpomene Katakalos’ set).
But there’s a misstep here that very deliberately throws all the rest of the play not so much into question, as into triviality.
Gone are the witty parodies of small talk, the lower-case ironies and ambiguities emerging from chatter. After constantly turning tables, shoes dropping with regular and comic effect as though from a footloose centipede, the playwright solemnly turns a final coffeetable on the audience, lets the biggest workboot of all fall, and reveals to us what it all means, kinda.
“Many hands committed the murder ... I will bring light to this darkness,” says Creon/Nate the Director, but it’s really the playwright, trading many little ironies for the big, non-tragic, academic brand, which insinuates the audience’s morose approval.
“This shame—it is my own!” says Oedipus at the awful moment of self-knowledge. But in globally castigating the false naivete of the masses of individual Americans, Lucas takes the nontragic fall into melodrama, becoming a haplessly conflicted faux-naif himself.
Euripides burlesqued deus-ex-machina endings to reach a metatragic irony of audience complicity, as more modern artists turn parodies of spectacle back on themselves to realize a kind of epiphany that goes beyond the pathetic, overturning sentimentalism. It’s really too bad; if he’d just said, in effect, “here’s what a half-baked rehearsal process, where everybody’s trying to read their own thoughts into each other’s life, looks like,” Lucas would’ve had one of the best social comedies onstage in years.
Instead, he tries for the big post-9/11 rabbit-punch of a statement and becomes another writer of soap masquerading as moral commentator.
The transactional analyst-style director of this Oedipus-within-a-play had the best advice for his creator’s prophetic pose when he tells his clueless Theban seer, “You are by far the cutest Teiresias in theater history. I’d concentrate on that.”
Shows at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through May 14. $28-$45. Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. For more information, call 843-4822 or see www.auroratheatre.org.
Photograph by David Allen
Director Nate (Mark Anderson Phillips) gives Chris (Greg Ayers) advice as Jen (Carrie Paff), Fanny (Rebecca Schweitzer) and Paola (Amy Resnick) look on.›