Think of the great theater roles, like Hamlet or Lear. Then consider the king who predates them all, Oedipus, that guy who has a problem with his father and an even bigger issue with his mother.
“Oedipus, for me, is the first fully realized dramatic character in the history of the theater,” said Jim Svendsen, artistic director of the Classic Greek Theatre Festival, now in its 43rd year. “He’s a prism with so many different sides. Like Shakespeare’s characters, he’s filled with contradictions. We love to watch him take his journey on the stage. We love and hate to see him succeed.”
Written some 2,500 years ago, playwright Sophocles’ classic tragedy is considered one of the greatest dramas ever told. Sigmund Freud might have popularized the idea of an “oedipal complex,” yet it’s the myth-based character’s struggle with identity issues that helps the story remain relevant for contemporary audiences. And the drama’s “nifty plot construction,” as Svendsen describes it — with its reversals, surprises and inevitable tragic ending — is what draws theater, TV and film writers to return to the archetypal story again and again.
This year’s production features a nine-member chorus. “We have music, dancing and choral speaking,” said Sandra Shotwell, a University of Utah theater professor who directed the show, now on tour in Salt Lake City, Provo and Ogden. “This is the root of the dramatic musical.”
In the play’s original text, the playwright notes that Oedipus sings, which inspired producers to commission original music from composer Cathy Neff, formerly of Ogden. And in a first for the annual Greek production, the music is performed by professional oboist Hillary Coon. The oboe, Svensen said, is the closest modern relative to the aulos, the reed instrument played by the Greeks.
The music is paired with choreography by Solange Gomez, with movements that support the text and would be suitable for a Greek chorus of old men and women, Shotwell said.
The play consists of a series of arguments between characters. Onstage from the first to the last line of the play is Oedipus, portrayed by U. student Ryon Sharette, a veteran of two previous Greek Theatre productions.
Of course, it is Oedipus’ passion and arrogance that lead to the character’s inevitable downfall. But not without a few comedic moments along the way. Contemporary audiences are often fascinated and repelled by a line spoken by Oedipus’ mother, Jocasta. “Many men dream of sleeping with their mothers. Don’t worry,” she tells her son.
“Don’t be afraid to laugh in a Greek tragedy,” said Svendsen, offering one of the insights from the orientation lectures he presents before every performance. “The ancient Greeks loved to laugh — there’s comedy in everything. Look for the irony. Look for the black humor.”
P The 43rd annual production of the Classical Greek Theatre Festival, based at Westminster College, continues its run of Sophocles’ “Oedipus the King” in various Utah locations through Sept. 29.
When • Monday, Sept. 23, 5 p.m.; free orientation lecture at 4 p.m.
Where • Brigham Young University’s de Jong Concert Hall, Provo
Tickets • $11 ($4 discount for students with IDs; $1 discount for seniors and BYU alumni); 801-422-2981, byuarts.com/tickets.
When • Today, Saturday, Sept. 28, and Sunday, Sept. 29, 9 a.m.; orientation lecture at 8:30 a.m.
Where • Red Butte Garden amphitheater, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15; $10 for garden members; $7 children and students; 801-585-0556; tickets.redbuttegarden.org/TheatreManager/1/online
When • Wednesday, Sept. 25, 7:30 p.m.; orientation lecture at 6:30 p.m.
Where • Wildcat Theater, Weber State University, Ogden
Tickets • $10; 801-626-7000; weberstatetickets.com