Plague and Pestilence are the Same Thing, Really: “Oedipus the King

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Oedipus the King
Presented by Theater of War Productions, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, and Brooklyn Public Library.
Written by Sophocles
Translated, directed and facilitated by Bryan Doerries, artistic director

Thursday, May 7, 2020, @ 7PM
A Virtual, Free Event Via Zoom

Critique by Kitty Drexel

New York City — “This translation is bananas,” said my Thursday night viewing companion in response to Bryan Doerries’ translation of Oedipus the King presented by Theatre of War Productions on May 7. Indeed, Doerries’ colloquialized translation of Oedipus was nontraditional. Thursday night’s live performance in three parts maneuvered the classical text between conventional expectation and contemporary acting styles. Sometimes it successfully drew parallels from Ancient Greece (429 B.C.E) to modern culture. Other times, modern vernacular against the theatre practices of Ancient Greece.

At 7:02 P.M., when Doerries introduced the evening’s event, he said that he chose Oedipus the King for its relevance to the current coronavirus pandemic. In Oedipus, the people of Thebes are experiencing a plague. They turn to their leader King Oedipus for guidance. The city is ravaged by a violent plague that they cannot quell. He responds with as much motivated problem-solving gusto as Trump did in January: none. He points fingers at everyone until the person left to blame is himself.

The similarities between the plague of Thebes and our own COVID-19 are uncanny. This translation of Oedipus the King would make an excellent tool to extend Sophocle’s play to new, younger audiences after a few more drafts. The current draft is not ready for an audience despite its use in last night’s performance. It needs work.

As it is now, Doerries’ translation jars the ear. It is stylistically haphazard. Listeners are expected to codeswitch between modern speech patterns and classical poetic translations on a dime. As Oedipus (Oscar Isaac) interrogates blind prophet Tiresias (Jeffrey Wright), Tiresias proclaims Oedipus the villain who caused Thebe’s plague. When Oedipus demands that Tiresias explain his accusation, Tiresias asks with the modern vulgarity of an Eminem video. To sum up, he said the equivalent of, and I paraphrase wildly, Bitch, did I stutter? Rather than continue trading barbs in modern, plain speak, Doerries has them revert to poetic style.

Oedipus said, “You speak only in riddles.”

“Are you not an expert in riddles?” responded Tiresias.

It isn’t strange that these two men would change their speech patterns to accommodate the needs of a situation. One adapts to survive. Rather, it is peculiar that these men would speak so informally in a highly formal setting. That they do is confusing to the audience and the educated thespian. Their constant codeswitching is unpredictable. We cannot trust their narratives because their speech patterns are unreliable. The audience is unable to develop an attachment to these characters. We don’t care if they live or die… Which is in some ways fortuitous because, spoiler alert, they die horribly.

The acting in Oedipus the King ran the range of excellent to wooden. One cannot expect too much from a Zoom reading for charity. We were told by Doerries that the actors graciously gave their time. They had minimal rehearsals and, I’m assuming, a minimal budget. The intent of this reading is not to wow educated audiences but to reach new ones so as to start a broader discussion about the ramifications of unchecked hubris in our politicians. Which it did. I’ll get to that in a minute.

Theatre professionals Frances McDormand as Jocasta (a role too small for her. She deserved a much larger hunk of the drama), Frankie Faison as the tortured Shephard, and David Strathairn (who offered an uncommon levity) as Messenger 1 were great. Oscar Isaac, who drew from his performance as Orestes in Agora, was a fine Oedipus. Each read well. We were entertained. Mission accomplished.

Some of the performers were not comfortable with reading from a script – a skill that is equated with scriptless reading but is altogether different. Their monologues were unshaped. I’m not going to name names. The actors will know who they are if they watch a recording of last night’s performance. Discussing their performances in detail won’t make them grow as actors any faster.

Yet, they too can consider their performances successful. They told a story over Zoom. We absorbed it. That’s the point.

Parts two and three of the evening were the highlight. Part one was the reading by famous actors. Part two had responses from invited panelists. Part three was an audience talkback. Thankfully, parts two and three were not Zoombombed as I feared it would be.

Among the panelists were Executive Director at Asian American Federation Joann Yoo, Political Director of Vocal-NY Paulette Soltani, and Anthony Almojera, an E.M.S. lieutenant for the Fire Department of New York City. They spoke boldly about the issues of racism, classism, and terror existing with New York City as a result of COVID-19. 

Almojera spoke at length about the human face of the pandemic: the death, the violence, the despair. It’s a face that we don’t see too often in the news. It’s certainly a face that our politicians won’t consider while debating city reopening strategies. He said that the ambulance is like a confessional. He hears things from patients that they won’t tell their families.

His honesty in response to Oedipus is a gift. Hopefully, viewers received it in the spirit that it was given. The victims of the pandemic deserve as much humanity as we can all grant them and more. By remembering the human cost of the plague, we can prevent its further spread.

Part three of the event opened with smart, thoughtful responses to the Oedipus reading and quickly devolved into emotional navel-gazing. I stopped watching when the discussion turned toward Tiresias’ blindness as a metaphor for intellectual insight. Sophocles had an excuse for his ablism. It was 429 B.C.E. and disabled people weren’t considered people. Disability was a punishment from the Gods. It’s 2020, we don’t have an excuse. Blindness isn’t a metaphor. It’s real. Blind people are people.

All in all, Oedipus the King was an okay experience. Famous talent notwithstanding, it wasn’t better or worse than any of the Zoom/video projects put up by local theatre companies since the quarantine began. Some of those are below. If you enjoyed Oedipus the King, please check them out.

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