Access to the ancients
Odysseus in a modern detention center, emphasis on ritual in Oedipus Rex
By Heidi Masek firstname.lastname@example.org
Oedipus Rex was “basically written as an act of worship to Apollo,” Robert Shea said. “There’s so much more to the play than the story.”
That’s what New Art Theatre in Manchester will try to convey to the audience about Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Nov. 15 and 17 at 7 p.m. For instance, there’s choral chanting and dancing, and “unless you connect it to religious ritual it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Shea, artistic director, said. In the story, king Oedipus fails to thwart the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother.
New Art Theatre formed in the early 1980s as the Living Classics Series at the Palace Theatre and is now based at the Dana Center at Saint Anselm College where Shea is director. New Art performs around New England for secondary and post-secondary schools.
Shea was attracted to this relatively new translation of the Greek by Stephen Berg, founder and editor of the American Poetry Review, and Diskin Clay, professor of classics at Johns Hopkins University, because it allows the characters to communicate with each other in a way that “kind of rings true” with a contemporary audience. “Plays are more than stories. They are works of art,” Shea said. This version brings out more of the symbolism, metaphor and artistry. In translations, “it’s hard to really kind of capture the poetic flavor,” Shea said. “Oftentimes ... even contemporary translations, they sound very stiff.”
The cast of five includes James Ryen, who had a lead in American Repertory Theater’s Romeo and Juliet last year and appeared in The Taming of the Shrew on the Boston Common. Kathleen Fomffich performs with Seacoast Repertory and Boston-based professional companies. Clare Callaghan, who is the one-woman chorus, has worked for New Art works with A.R.T. in Cambridge, Mass., and has worked with a laboratory theater group in Oxford, England. Lisa Richardson plays the blind prophet and acts in Boston and New York, but tries to perform with New Art each year. “She likes the innovative nature of our work,” Shea said. Working actors often have to take roles in “safe” productions, he said.
Blair Hundertmark of Portsmouth is appearing as Oedipus Rex. He’s also the artistic director for New Hampshire Theatre Project in Portsmouth and is directing and performing in The Odyssey for that company, Nov. 10 through Nov. 26 at the West End Studio Theatre, 959 Islington St., Portsmouth.
New Hampshire Theatre Project is using the 21st-century retelling of The Odyssey by David Farr. Hundertmark’s colleague saw it in London, where Farr directs the Lyric Hammersmith Stage, and recommended it as a good fit.
The Odyssey is “really about identity. Who are you? Are you defined by your home and your country...? What is home?” Hundertmark said. Farr’s version goes back and forth in time.
Hundertmark has read parts of the original translation of the epic Greek poem by Homer that recounts Odysseus’ ten-year trip home from the Trojan War. “That’s when you really realize how clever the playwright was in choosing pieces that highlight the journey and weaving into his own theme of identity and immigration,” he said about Farr. “It’s certainly not an overtly political piece but you don’t have to look too far under the surface to realize it’s timely,” he said.
An ensemble cast performs all roles. Sound designer Agnes Charlesworth wrote music with Greek, Turkish and Italian influences for the lyrics in the script. The group is going for a festival or circus atmosphere in the small black-box theater, although there are dark stories in The Odyssey. Farr’s telling of The Odyssey portrays the asylum-seekers as “joyful people” who are trying to move on although they resent the Greeks. Oedipus Rex, however, starts at the “brightest point” and “spirals into destruction.… There’s so little hope in that piece,” Hundertmark said.