IN "THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS," an experimental vision of the legend of Oedipus, ambitious adapter/director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson seem to have aimed for an inspired fusion of two unlikely elements -- classical Greek tragedy and American gospel music. What they've actually got is a sort of arm-wrestling match between the controlled power of the tragedy and the brute force of the music. No contest: In this match, gospel wins, hands down. Arena Stage's vivid staging has more spectacle than sense, more sound than fury, giving us an uneven "Oedipus," complex but chaotic.
"Gospel," adapted from "Oedipus at Colonus," the second play in Sophocles' trilogy about the Oedipus legend, picks up the tale after Oedipus has learned he unknowingly killed his father, married his mother and sired his sisters, and has blinded himself in grief. Now the homeless, sightless old man wanders with his daughters Ismene and Antigone (who will have problems of her own in the next play). Then, as doomed, damned Oedipus nears death at Colonus (a suburb of Athens), he is sought out by his faithless sons Eteocles and Polyneices, each of whom wants his paternal blessing so they can come to power as the oracles have prophesied.
That's a lot of story, and Breuer and Telson set it in a church, acted out in song and sermon by the preacher and congregation. But that novel idea hits its clever head against a basic conflict. The comforting message built into the gospel lyrics -- that love and faith can conquer all -- contradicts the bleak message of the play, that man is the pitiful pawn in cruel fate's game.
Confusion ensues, as several characters -- principally Oedipus and Antigone -- have separate actors for separate voices, one sung, one spoken. And technical troubles add some unscripted grief to the proceedings. The huge cast switches frequently between amplified and unamplified singing and acting, and at times it is hard to figure out just who is actually belting out that wailing solo, since all the voices seem to issue from one central speaker. It's hard to fathom why mikes are necessary at all, when the singers prove to have power to spare, easily equalling the electronically boosted voices.
But where the concept falls short of success, the performances succeed, putting across the necessary breast-beating emotions and creating an ensemble frenzy. The assembled members of Washington's own Wesley Boyd's Gospel Music Workshop Choir are gorgeous in their iridescent gowns and sashes, their multi-colored voices flung about the room like sunlight through a prism. Soloist Carolyn Johnson White is searing and siren-like (the police kind) on the roof-shaking "Lift Him Up."
Also commendable are blind Clarence Fountain as Oedipus, clutching and convulsing, with a powerful gravelly growl; J.J. Farley of the Original Soul Stirrers, who can sound like honey dripping or auto brakes squealing; guitarist/singer Sam Butler, whose voice marries the sensual to the spiritual; and Willie Rogers, also of the sartorially eccentric Soul Stirrers, who gets an ecstatic Al Green-type solo on "Eternal Sleep."
This "Gospel" makes a joyful noise. But the story of Oedipus, designed to tear at the heart, barely touches it in this retelling. And it might be wise to read Sophocles' play before going, as this audacious Americanized attempt muddles the eternal tale.
THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS -- At Arena Stage through December 30.