Oedipus Rocks! is one bad mutha…
You’ve got to hand it to Jerry Miller and Marcel Daguerre: It takes a lot of chutzpah even to conceive of the idea of transforming the most famous archetypal tragedy of Greek drama into a musical comedy. And once you’ve handed it to them you’ve pretty much got to follow through by asking, “Why the hell would they even want to do that?”
I attended the play on opening night hoping that the answer to that question would make itself evident. And I suppose it does, in a very simplistic way, if one can be satisfied with “Because it’ll get a few laughs” as an answer. The concept seems analogous to gilding the lily then dipping it in chocolate and drenching it with cheap aftershave before using it as a squirt-flower boutonniere for a rubber chicken dressed in a tuxedo.
But, if we can manage to set this elaborate quibble aside, the production is very beautifully staged, and the rock ‘n’ roll intrusions are presented with enough skill to make them bearable if not comprehensible.
Miller’s choice to present the characters in massive masks of his own design and fabrication is a good one. The large, expressionistic masks and complementary finger-extending handwear give the characters a surreal, marionette-like aspect well suited to both the mechanistic articulations of the tragic plot and the goofy cartoonishness of the rock ‘n’ roll comedy overlays. The earth-tones palette chosen for the color schemes of costumes and set also work well, especially once the sun goes down and the lighting design by Alex Belden achieves full effect.
The choice to conceal the live band behind the set rather than place the musicians on stage, as has been done in previous SIP musical productions, is a good one in that it removes a potential visual distraction from the action of the characters on stage, but the drawback is that the sound of the band is buried behind a wall of muffling plywood that suppresses much of the detail of the musicianship, filtering out the crispness of the drumming and deadening the details of the guitar and keyboard work.
That’s a shame, because the house band, Los Euphonias, plays the original score by Daguerre with finesse and precision. At moments when the chorus or Oedipus (Allen Lunde) seemed to be floundering in search of a key, I wondered whether the muffled nature of the soundtrack could have been a contributing factor to their difficulties.
But muffled soundtrack or not, there was no distracting musical actress Sarah Foster as the blind oracle Tiresias from delivering her songs on key and with maximum dramatic flair. Likewise Douglas Anderson, whose performance as Oedipus’ foster brother Creon conveys both the voice of reason and the privileged humility of one who shares the royal privileges with none of the royal responsibilities of the doomed king.
The basic fact of the matter is that no amount of cute double-entendres or crafty musical interludes can overcome the inexorable dramatic power of the ever-tightening tragic noose that Sophocles, the original writer of the play, wove around the neck of his character Oedipus. And it is this sense of doomed inevitability that gives the play its power and its morbid fascination for audiences centuries after its original conception. We all know it’s going to end badly, but we are fascinated by the working out of the inevitable fate of the misbegotten king.
Having seen and—grudgingly—enjoyed the play in this bizarre hybridized version, I still can’t figure out why Miller and company didn’t just stage it straight up without the infusion of musical-comedy elements. But, hey, according to tradition every tragedy hinges on a basic flaw, and if your flaw is that you choose to present genuine tragedy in the form of musical comedy, most people probably aren’t going to hold it against you.