Black soul and Greek legends
Oedipus sings the blues
“The Gospel at Colonus” at the Getty Villa
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Whatever else one may think about “The Gospel at Colonus,” the reinterpretation of “Oedipus at Colonus,” it’s hard to deny that this is an innovative production. Furthermore — and it’s being performed through Sept. 30 at the outdoor amphitheater in the Getty Villa — it brings to mind some of the other creative offerings that the venue has presented over the years, one each fall now for 17 years, such as “The Haunted House Party,” based on Plautus, “Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles,” based on Euripides, and “Peace,” by Aristophanes, as rejiggered by Culture Clash.
Some of these renditions work better than others. “The Gospel at Colonus,” which was created in 1983 by Lee Breuer, falls somewhere in between. While we still have the original outline of the play, in which Oedipus the King, who learned that he’d murdered his father and fathered children on his mother, is wandering blindly, literally and figuratively, led by his daughter (and, ahem, sister) Antigone. They come to a sacred grove, hoping to rest, but are told to skedaddle when the Chorus learns who they are. But Oedipus calls for King Theseus of Athens, who is more empathetic to the disgraced and former ruler of Thebes.
In this makeover, Theseus is cast as a black Pentecostal preacher, and the work as a whole is recast as an African-American musical, replete with lots and lots of soulful singing, blues, spirituals, gospel, you name it, and so it’s a bit like a religious revival needing only a tent and a nearby river to baptize the converted. There’s also a live five-piece band to enliven the songs, although the group’s a little muted probably so as not to rile the surrounding neighborhood.Theseus is played by Mark Spates Smith and Oedipus by Kelvin Roston, Jr. Both men have slightly gravelly or hoarse voices, which actually enhances the effect of their personas. Antigone is performed by the statuesque Aeriel Williams, and Ismene (the second daughter) by Ariana Burks. When Ismene pops into the picture, it’s as the bearer of bad news: Polyneices (Kai A. Ealy), the older son of Oedipus, has been booted from the throne by younger brother Eteocles. We never do see Eteocles, but Creon (the boys’ uncle who ruled Thebes while the lads came of age) makes an appearance. I guess he’s sort of the villain of the piece, and the only white actor for what that’s worth. He’s played elegantly enough, as villains usually are, by Jason Huysman.
Eventually, Polyneices bursts onto the stage, a late but rather abrupt entrance that shakes up the action and gives us some palpable drama. Oedipus is not about to get pulled into the squabble between his sons, instead pronouncing that both of them will kill one another. Gee, thanks Dad!A word about the costumes, the colors of which are muted, off-white gowns and beige scarves, the latter strikingly poignant late in the play when converted into shrouds draping the heads of the actors and recalling “The Mourners,” those sculptures created for the tombs of the Burgundian dukes, Philip the Bold and John the Fearless in the early 15th century.
In Greek plays there’s always the chorus, whose purpose is to comment on the action and often to fill in the blanks. That’s pretty much a given. In “The Gospel at Colonus” the chorus at times takes on a call-and-response role, like you’d find in a black sermon, and all of the chorus members in this work are phenomenal singers. This is good and bad, because there is a little too much off-the-charts soloing, the singers pulling the high notes down from the treetops, as it were. While this kind of thing is always a crowd-pleaser, it does tend to make the production less about the inherent drama and more about the entertainment factor. Which for many in the audience isn’t a problem, but at times I think the thrust of the story is derailed. Be that as it may and, besides, no one knows what the original audience members, back in the fifth century BC, came away with as they filed from the amphitheater.And there you are, a pretty good show overall, and memorable to a point. It’s being directed by Mark J.P. Hood and the Court Theatre’s Charles Newell. Among the technical crew we have set designer John Culbert, costumer Raquel Adorno, and lighting designer Keith Parham.
The Gospel at Colonus is being performed at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday outdoors at the Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy, Pacific Palisades. Not recommended for those under the age of eight. Tickets, Thursday $45 ($40 students, seniors); Friday $50; and Saturday $55. No discount for Friday and Saturday shows. (310) 440-7300 or visit getty.edu. ER