BACK IN THE old days -- in ancient Greece -- tragic theater was designed to evoke pity and fear, maybe even catharsis. An ambitious young theater group debuting this month may prompt these emotions in today's audiences. Aiming to create political theater that is specifically Washingtonian, the Avalanche Theater Co. is now offering Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" -- set in Marion Barry's Washington.

The story of Oedipus -- a hero-king who discovers that his own sins have brought plague on his city -- lends some rich possibilities for dramatizing Barry's own crisis, yet Avalanche carefully avoids forcing too many parallels between the two tales.

"We don't get too cute with the metaphor," says director Chris D'Amico, one of Avalanche's cofounders. "{Oedipus' wife} Jocasta is not Effi Barry. {The play is} the metaphor of a king whose bravery, pride and arrogance simultaneously created his rise and his downfall."

D'Amico founded Avalanche Theater in the spring of 1988 along with three fellow Georgetown University graduates. The group had already settled on a more contemporary play for their premiere when Barry was arrested last January.

"The papers were rife with references to Greek tragedy," D'Amico says. "I pictured dog-eared copies of Aristotle in newsrooms all over town. I'm still upset that it took me all of 48 hours to say, 'Let's grab this story. It's both of national and local scope.' "

In Avalanche's production, images such as the District building, and "the king's" fine suits and photo-op smile at first are intriguing for their pure familiarity. But the 2,500-year-old play's concepts, not its specifics, prove most compelling: a leader committing the very crimes he condemns, a community (represented by the chorus) in anguish at the fall of its hero. And with delicate staging of his biracial cast, D'Amico portrays the moments in civic upheaval when social divisions matter -- and when they don't.

According to D'Amico, the first priority for the group is to get its ideas onstage, but Avalanche also wants "Oedipus" to provoke community comment.

"I think of 'Do the Right Thing's' success, where everyone was trying to figure out, 'Why is this so ambiguous?' " D'Amico says.

While political theater has a stronger tradition in countries with less stable governments than the United States, Washington is full of issues and characters that deserve to be examined on stage, D'Amico maintains.

"When people want to set up something, any kind of movement, they come to Washington," he says. "It sometimes makes the city distressingly single-minded, but it sure makes happy opportunities for theater."