"The Gospel at Colonus," the exultant musical that opened last night at Arena Stage, draws its material from two seemingly unrelated sources -- an austere and forbidding Greek tragedy more than 2,000 years old and a tambourine-shaking Sunday service in a black American church. Upon first reflection, that may strike you as a preposterous marriage. But once you've seen it, it seems, quite literally, a marriage made in heaven.
The contemporary theater is adept at mourning the futility of our lot and putting us in touch with despair. What it rarely does, except in the most facile sentimental ways, is lift our hearts. With mountain-moving faith and a tidal wave of music, however, "Gospel at Colonus" lifts them high. Then higher. And finally, as a majestically beautiful spiritual called "Now Let the Weeping Cease" breaks over the theater, higher still.
Taking as its example the life of Oedipus, the Greek king whom the gods turned into a blind and wretched outcast, the show celebrates the very fact of our mortality. In our ability to look up even though destiny has cast us down, to endure pain and still believe in grace, it finds reason for boundless joy. And the cast of 57 -- which includes three gospel groups (J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers, the J.D. Steele Singers, and Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama), a nine-piece orchestra, and Wesley Boyd's Washington-based Gospel Music Workshop Choir -- sings out that joy with such fervor that you may fear for Arena's rafters.
Imported from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it was a runaway success last season, the production has been restaged by its creator, Lee Breuer, for the four-sided Arena. Rarely has the stage appeared so full. With such an abundance of performers, all wrapped in a riot of African fabrics, waving white handkerchiefs and green fans, it's as if a cosmic kaleidoscope were about to explode before your eyes. And indeed, before too long, the performers have leapt off their benches to testify with feet that can no longer stay still and fingers that seem to want to punch holes in the sky.
But even in moments of quiet agony and bowed heads, the stage overflows. It is the invisible that looms largest in "The Gospel at Colonus." Communal belief, you see, is what's really filling the space.
The inspiration for the evening is "Oedipus at Colonus," the centerpiece of the trilogy that Sophocles devoted to the man who killed his father, married his mother and then, overcome with remorse, plucked out his own eyes. Old and bent by the time he gets to Colonus, living only on the promise of redemption, Oedipus wants nothing more than peace and a final resting place. This rigorously metaphysical play, however, has been recast in the form of a Pentecostal service that is anything but somber. Oedipus' plight is to be recounted from the pulpit by a visiting minister (Morgan Freeman), skilled in rhetorical flourishes. Various members of the congregation will also take part whenever selected episodes need enacting. Above all, voices will be raised in song.
Initially, the conceit takes some sorting out, especially since some of the characters in Sophocles' drama are portrayed simultaneously by several performers. Freeman, for example, speaks for Oedipus. But Fountain and his backup group take over whenever Oedipus sings. Sometimes the gravely radiant Isabell Monk is Antigone, Oedipus' daughter. But sometimes she is an evangelist, reciting material Sophocles entrusted to the chorus. Theseus (Carl Lumbly), the king of Athens who extends solace and protection to Oedipus, is at the same time a latter-day preacher in a blazing white suit. Matching up the performers and their sundry roles may keep you from getting into the swing of things for a while.
It should also be noted that "Oedipus at Colonus" does not boast one of literature's great plots. It inches forward to its conclusion, preferring to sacrifice dramatic tension to meditations on the fragility of man, the strange workings of prophecy and the ultimate mystery of the gods. The dynamics of the evening are not those of the conventional play and spectators expecting to be swept up in a psychological narrative will be frustrated.
What Breuer and his gifted composer, Bob Telson, do manage to summon up is a sense of the divine presence that, we are told, animated Greek tragedy. At first, the exotic climate of the revival meeting will seduce you: the swaying congregation, moaning low and gathering its energy; the rolling oratory tinged with a suggestion of the fire to come; the dapper-Dan finery that signals an important community occasion in the offing. Under the Sunday-go-to-meeting formalities, an eruption of faith is clearly brewing.
When it comes, an extraordinary transference comes with it. The gospel spirit that inundates the stage seems to spring from antiquity itself. Past and present miraculously join hands. Greek tragedy certainly never looked like this, but it is entirely possible that it felt like this, sent the same kind of shivers down the spine, shortened the breath in similar ways.
Gospel sings ardently of the homeless, the tired, the overburdened, the lonely. It is the immediate expression of the downtrodden yearning to be caught up in God's arms. What else does the broken Oedipus really want? He might never have called himself, as the blind Fountain does -- his left hand trembling like a butterfly in a net, his voice mounting the scale in a heart-rending wail -- "a messed-up man, trying to find my way home." But the definition is as apt as any Sophocles provided.
"Gospel at Colonus" doesn't draw such parallels consciously. It appears to have been born more of intuition than scholarship. Exhilarating as it is in places, some of the correspondences plainly don't work. A confrontation between Oedipus and his devious son Polynices is in no way illuminated by putting actor Kevin Davis in guerrilla fatigues and having him vent the anger of mean city streets. And what exactly is one to make of the kidnaping of Oedipus' daughters, Antigone and Ismene, by the equally devious Creon? The more arcane machinations of Greek politics remain stubbornly beyond the reach of this production, understanding as it tries to be.
It is when Breuer and Telson focus on the misery and grandeur of Oedipus that their work takes on its power and resonance. Human suffering, after all, is a constant from century to century. With such numbers as "Stop, Do Not Go On," "Numberless Are the World's Wonders," "Never Drive You Away" and "Lift Him Up," "Gospel at Colonus" transports an audience to the edge of jubilation.
In the process, a stained-glass church in America and a wind-swept landscape in Greece merge to make a single world. Then as now, here as there, fate may wound mankind capriciously. The transcendent message of this strange and unique show is that mankind's wounds are not beyond mending.
THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS. By Lee Breuer. Music by Bob Telson. Based on an adaptation of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" by Robert Fitzgerald. Sets, Alison Yerxa; costumes, Ghretta Hynd and Alison Yerxa; lighting, Julie Archer; sound, David A. Schnirman. With Morgan Freeman, Clarence Fountain and Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Isabell Monk, Carl Lumbly, Carl Williams Jr., Jevetta Steele, Robert Earl Jones, Kevin Davis, Wesley Boyd's Gospel Music Workshop Choir, J.J. Farley and the Original Soul Stirrers, J.D. Steele Singers. At Arena Stage through Dec. 30.