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Oedipus Apparatus
by Lucy Cashion
from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
Directed by Lucy Cashion
West End Players’ Guild
April 21, 2017

Will Bonfliglio, Mitch Eagles
Photo by John Lamb

West End Players Guild

There’s a lot of plot, and plotting, in Oedipus Apparatus. There’s also a king, a queen, a precocious 10-year-old, goddesses and Oracles who host a talk show, and lots of talk of physics, prophecy, psychology, and plagues. This is a Lucy Cashion classic adaption, and it’s just as strange and as fascinating as her takes on Shakespeare she’s done with ERA. Here, at West End Players’ guild, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been turned into a fascinating experiment, and it makes for a production like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Here, the classic tale of Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) is told, and re-told, and deconstructed, and re-tooled, and fused with all sorts of different influences from various times in human history, and particularly the 20th and 21st centuries. In a show that runs just short of two hours and keeps a brisk, steady pace with lots and lots of talking, framing and reframing of scenes, this is sure to keep the viewers’ brains engaged. The experience begins before the play even officially starts, as audience members are ushered down the stairs to Thebes by Antigone (Alicen Moser), Oedipus’s daughter, who is working on a project for history class. That project–a family tree–forms much of the framing device for this play, although what we first hear is a long, guided meditation on the concept of death, and fear of death. When the story begins, the main story focuses on the king, Oedipus, and his efforts to appease the angry god Apollo (Joe Taylor, who also plays music throughout the production) and end a plague in his city. He’s sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to visit the Oracle at Delphi and is informed that he needs to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, in order to stop the plague. Well, anyone who’s read the original play knows where this is going, at least to a degree, but since this is a Lucy Cashion creation, that means there will be additional–and fascinating–complications. The scene plays, and then it’s reset several times with elements of physics and geometry included in the dialogue, while there are frequent breaks from the linear story as Antigone carries out her history project and the Oracles–Athena (Rachel Tibbetts), Artemis (Cara Barresi), the Sphinx (Ellie Schwetye), Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Cassidy Flynn) hold a televised talk show. Meanwhile, Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (Maggie Conroy), lounges on a couch on one side of the set, seemingly out of the action, until she ultimately joins in.  As the story goes on, and plays and replays, Antigone and several of the cast members arrange props, readjust the set, and start, stop, and speed up the action as directed by Apollo.  As the story is told and retold, the tension keeps building and the situation gets more and more urgent and chaotic as the plot moves to its eventual devastating conclusion.

This isn’t a play that’s particularly easy to describe. There’s so much going on here, and it’s really important to pay attention, and it keeps a steady, increasingly tense pace. There’s tragedy here, but there’s also humor, philosophy, and a lot of math and physics. The blending of story elements from different eras adds a lot of interest here, with Greek goddesses and oracles hanging out with Dr. Freud, and Jocasta serenading the audience with a pop standard. The ideas of fate and the inevitability of death are built into the story as the story builds the machine. The characters here are memorably characterized and expertly played, from Moser’s persistent, enthusiastic Antigone to Eagles’s stubborn, proud Oedipus, to Conroy’s wild-eyed, bewildered Jocasta, to Bonfiglio’s insistent Creon. The pantheon of god, goddesses, and prophets is also strongly represented, from Overly’s belligerent Tiresius, to Flynn’s philosophical Freud, as well as Tibbetts, Schwetye, and Barresi giving strong support along with Taylor’s monotonous, relentless Apollo. It’s a very strong cast, and they’re given a lot to do, even when they’re not speaking, as their actions work to build a machine as the story continues and replays, again and again until just the right moment.

The set here is like a character in the drama, and the whole space has been transformed in service to the set. Kudos to designers Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis for the intricately constructed set, which is essentially a puzzle with all its pieces to be assembled as the story plays out. Meredith LaBounty’s colorful, whimsical costumes also contribute to this extremely well-realized creation of a timely and also timeless representation of ancient Thebes with a mix of modern sensibilities like cameras and video screens.

This is an immensely clever and  insightful work. There’s a whole lot going on, but there are a lot of strong moments, and fascinating ones like when Freud and Oedipus talk about Hamlet. Yes, that happens. Oedipus Apparatus isn’t what you would expect, and then sometimes it is.  It’s an exciting new experiment and an excellent season closer for West End Players Guild.

Carl Overly Jr., Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Oedipus Apparatus at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 30, 2017.

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Antigone
by Sophocles
In a New Translation by David R. Slavitt
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
October 10, 2014

Maggie Conroy Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theatre

Maggie Conroy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theatre

“What would you be willing to die for? What would you be willing to kill for?”  These questions are asked on the program cover for Upstream Theater’s new production of the classic Greek tragedy Antigone. These questions have been asked in many varied ways throughout the generations, and Upstream brings them to the stage with its simply staged, powerfully acted presentation that strikes a relevant chord in today’s world, and particularly in St. Louis.

Civil disobedience is at the forefront of this story, but it’s not the only issue dealt with. In fact, Antigone herself (Maggie Conroy) isn’t the main focus of the play. While the story begins with Antigone, the action centers mostly on Creon (Peter Mayer), the king of Thebes who issues a controversial order and has to deal with its consequences on himself and his family.  In the wake of a recent war, Creon decides to give an honorable burial to one of his nephews who defended the city, while allowing the other nephew–who fought for the other side–to be left to the elements as food for vultures.  It’s never a serious question for Creon’s niece, Antigone, that she will defy her uncle’s order and bury her brother, even though the penalty for doing so is death. She is resolute, even when her devoted sister Ismene (Wendy Renee Greenwood) refuses to join her in her efforts.  The real dilemma presented is for Creon, who is confronted with his own power-consciousness and must make a decision between revenge and mercy, pitting him against public opinion and his own son Haemon (Andrew Michael Neiman), who is engaged to Antigone. As Creon is forced to deal with tragic consequences of his own ruthlessness, the ever-present Greek chorus (Dennis Lebby, Norman McGowan, and Patrick Siler) is there to both react and comment on the situation.

This is one of those plays that a lot of people read in high school but then mostly forget.  I have to admit I was surprised at how little Antigone herself is in the story.  The play’s named after her, but she is more the catalyst for the action than the protagonist.  In fact, the earlier scenes between Conroy as Antigone and Mayer as Creon have an almost clinical sensibility to them. I was expecting more emotion, but that doesn’t come until later in this production. Conroy is excellent as the matter-of-fact Antigone. She’s not histrionic or conflicted. She knows exactly what she’s going to do, and she communicates that well.  Mayer, for his part, portrays Creon with a detached coldness at first, which makes his descent into near-madness in the second act all the more affecting.  There are also good performances from Greenwood in a dual role as Ismene and as Creon’s wife Eurydice, and Neiman as the conflicted Haemon.  Lebby, McGowan and Siler bring character and gravity to their roles as the chorus members, who are wary and sometimes fearful of Creon, and John Bratkowski is memorable in two roles–as Creon’s guard and as the blind soothsayer Teresias. Nancy Lewis makes the most of a small role as a messenger, bringing much weight and empathy to her characterization.

The overall tone of this production is simple and timeless, giving an appropriately mythical quality to the production while highlighting its immediacy.  The set, designed by Michael Heil, is minimal, emphasizing giant Greek-style paintings by James Van Well that line the back wall. The costumes, by LaLonnie Lehman, are ancient Greek influenced but also surprisingly modern, especially in Creon’s outfit, which is simple but more contemporary.  The lighting, designed by Steve Carmichael, is strikingly effective, particularly in the near pitch-dark blackouts between scenes, which highlight the increasing bleakness of the situations.

For a show that’s set in the misty past, this Antigone is striking a modern chord, even with the overall timelessness of the its atmosphere. Especially in St. Louis, where the issues of abuse of authority and reactions of civil disobedience are making news daily, this is a surprisingly relevant play. Upstream’s excellent cast and crew have brought us this play with simplicity and profound clarity.  It’s a play from yesterday, but very much for today.

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

Norman McGowan, Dennis Lebby
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

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