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Editorial Review

‘Greek’ makes a show of squalor

By Celia Wren
Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011

When a Sphinx muscles into the world of "Greek" - British dramatist Steven Berkoff's retelling of the Oedipus story - she's a nightmare within a nightmare. With treadmill-like determination, Berkoff's 1980 play conjures up a violent, grubby modern London populated by racist boobs who eat bad food and vomit Guinness in tacky pubs. Into this landscape, the male-hating Sphinx briefly introduces a little uncanny grandeur - at least, she does in SCENA Theatre's effectively stylized production, directed by Robert McNamara.

Up to this point, about halfway through the play, actress Danielle Davy has been channeling various cartoonish Londoners, moving with a puppetlike twitchiness, gawking goofily through cat glasses and generally meshing with the other members of the four-person cast. When she becomes the Sphinx, the glasses, exaggerated movements and relatively low profile vanish: Kneeling rigidly on a table in her black dress, the grimy, Aegean-evoking columns of Michael C. Stepowany's set in the background, she stares ahead with glazed eyes and an air of boredom that's just a little eerie. "Get it over with," this Sphinx says in a jaded tone as Eddy (Eric Lucas), the play's Oedipus stand-in, prepares to cut off her head.

It's an expressively mannered sequence in a production that contains a fair share of such sequences. Berkoff's script specifies that the actors' faces should be painted white; incorporating this dictum, McNamara (who previously staged "Greek" for SCENA in 1998, and who staged Berkoff's "Sink the Belgrano!" in 2010) has given this incarnation the look of a show put on by traveling clowns. They're creepy, voluble clowns: Eddy in particular is a mouthpiece for speeches that rise to the level of grim poetry, riddled with vulgarities and with references to grease, guts, rats, rot, genitalia, bodily fluids and maggots. Sometimes, as Eddy's monologues paint pictures of the soulless urban wasteland, the other onstage figures illustrate his words, becoming a kind of choreographed chorus. When he describes a street fight, for instance, they flail and reel as though they're being thrashed in slow motion, their deliberately stagy movements making the world of the play seem all the more phantasmagorical.

This mode of artifice places the transmission of myth in rakish relief: The clowns seem to be pulling "Greek" out of a suitcase, just as Berkoff is pulling the Oedipus myth out of the vault of Western culture. For the most part, the SCENA actors cope well with this stylized, black comic approach. David Bryan Jackson is particularly compelling as Eddy's incongruously chipper Dad, while a droll Davy underscores the dim-wittedness of his Mum. Nanna Ingvarsson admirably infuses a hint of vulnerability into her portrait of Eddy's wife, though she also goes full-throttle when spoofing the character's lusts. As for Lucas, he sometimes seems less at ease with the material than his cast mates do, but he looks suitably loutish in his punk-style costume, complete with black leather tie.

Marianne Meadows's severe lighting, and James Bigbee Garver's sound design - with its blasts of menacing techno music - complement "Greek's" vision of a society blighted by distrust, distorted values and widespread alienation (ills that correspond to the plague in Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex"). In his director's note, McNamara suggests that, what with phenomena like last summer's London riots and the current European financial crisis, Berkoff's drama is once again timely. But despite the striking moments in this production - and despite the script's arguably hopeful ending - theatergoers may find "Greek" too monotonously ranting, and too packed with showy squalor, to resonate very much.

Backstage: All in the family

By Jessica Goldstein
Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011

Scena Theatre’s “Greek,” which opens Thursday, plucks Oedipus’s tale out of a mythic past and drops it in a dystopian present, in a politically charged, angst-ridden London.

In Steven Berkoff’s play, Oedipus is now Eddy, an East Londoner in a black leather jacket and combat boots who falls in love with a waitress (2,500-year-old spoiler alert: The waitress is his mom). All the actors wear whiteface and speak in a hybrid of Cockney slang and “neo-Shakespearean verse,” said Robert McNamara, Scena’s artistic director and “Greek” director. “Berkoff’s language is highly charged. . . . It’s like two hours of poetry coming in, but it’s one of the most scatologically obscene plays ever written.

“It’s a real punch in the solar plexus, right in the gut.”

Nanna Ingvarsson, the Helen Hayes Award-winning actress who plays Eddy’s mother-cum-lover, agreed, describing the vocabulary as “so bawdy, so dirty and so beautifully poetic at the same time.”

“There is an edge of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ to it,” McNamara said, “this feeling that Britain was once great, and now it has declined. . . . This is a modern-day, apocalyptic vision.”

The tragedy is reinvented as a rags-to-riches love story with an ending that takes more than a few liberties with Sophocles’ source material.

“Greek” premiered at Scena in 1998, but McNamara said there was no question in his mind as to whether the show would be relevant.

“This summer, we saw riots in London,” McNamara said. “Its topicality is not diminished at all. . . . You saw what’s going on through Europe all summer long. It’s like the summer of discontent.”