Oedipus, the Greek king whose name is virtually synonymous with tragedy, wears a business suit and shades. Jocasta, his doomed wife, looks like a standard-issue political spouse, albeit a slightly exotic one. The messenger, bearer of unwelcome information, arrives on a bicycle, two-way radio crackling and requisite headphones and spandex leggings in place.
In its inaugural production, the Avalanche Theater Company has taken Sophocles' tragedy and transplanted it to contemporary Washington, in keeping with the company's intention to offer productions that "address issues specific to our city." Made up largely of Georgetown University graduates and funded by a group of well-connected donors (including U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills, whose husband, Roderick, is this show's executive producer), the company's "Oedipus the King" is not a flawlessly conceived work by any means. But there is an artistic integrity at its core that is worthy of attention.
The only way a viewer would know that this Oedipus (Cornell Womack) was intended as the city's embattled mayor, Marion Barry, is by looking at the program. There is nothing in Womack's performance or in any directorial embroidery that would let someone who didn't already know in on the construct. This approach has obvious advantages and disadvantages; on the one hand there are no tackyalterations to the script; on the other, the updating can be somewhat artificial.
There are clues, to be sure: The plague that infects the residents of this Thebes is drugs, as evidenced by an early struggle over what appears to the contents of a small plastic bag taken from a derelict who staggers onto the stage and dies. The Chorus is transformed here into a collection of contemporary urban types -- the scruffy veteran, a handsome yuppie, a pregnant teenager, a hooker, a punk with the sides of his head shaved, an old lady, a dedicated priest. Oedipus's bodyguard bears a remarkable resemblance to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and a brief appearance by a swaggering character named "Renegade Priest" puts one in mind of George Stallings Jr.
The king, before the awful truth of his destiny begins to unfold, is a bombastic, arrogant leader, filled with hubris, the egotism that leads to a false feeling of invincibility. Sound familiar? When word comes through Oedipus's brother-in-law Kreon (played here by Erik Sandvold as a particularly dutiful Capitol Hill aide type) that the plague will be lifted only when the killer of the previous king is found and punished, Oedipus is confident that none of the city's woes can be laid at his feet.
Indeed, when the blind seer Teiresias says that the king is the culprit, and that he has committed the awful deed of killing his father and marrying his mother, Oedipus's reaction is to accuse his brother-in-law of conspiring against him. The fact that Kreon is white (Womack is black) echoes Barry's claims that he has been persecuted by a political establishment seeking his downfall because of his race.
But it is not long before the analogy with Barry and his problems begins to fall apart. Oedipus was a tragic figure because he did not know that the man he killed was his father, or that the woman he married was his mother -- in fact he thought he was escaping that horrible fate, which had been predicted for him, by leaving his home to come to Thebes. Barry is tragic -- should you choose to call him such -- because of his own weaknesses for inebriation and chasing women (two tendencies that are hardly noble in nature). True, each fell from a high moral position to a base one, but Oedipus was living out a preordained fate, while Barry was creating his own. To suggest that Barry is a tragic figure in the classical sense is perhaps excessively compassionate.
Once Oedipus sees what he has done, he punishes himself by gouging out his eyes with the brooches pinned to his wife's dress. Barry has yet to show remorse for having been filmed by undercover police smoking crack in a woman's hotel room, let alone to suggest atonement for himself.
Well, so it doesn't quite hang together. At least director Chris D'Amico is giving audiences something to chew on. And he has assembled an unusually good ensemble of actors, nurturing their strengths to minimize their weaknesses.
Womack is too young for Oedipus, but he has authority and an intensity that allows him to carry it off. As the aged seer, South African Mphela Makgoba is a find, seemingly a frail old man but possessing the force of a strong wind. Others are effective too: Namu Lwanga as a pathetic pregnant teenager, Raymond Ficca as the yuppie businessman, Cecily Patterson as the bicycle messenger and Fiona Hogan as Jocasta.
The original music by Scott Pender is haunting and odd, contemporary without calling undue attention to itself. The ensemble sings it well, especially Amy Jagodnik, Ficca and Lwanga. Likewise, Tony Cisek's stark set, metallic and cold, seems pretentious at first but gradually becomes part of the whole. The lighting, however, is curiously erratic. There are moments where characters who should be lit are plunged into darkness and other moments where every color in designer John R. Mirvish's workshop seems to be on display.
Oedipus the King, by Sophocles. Produced by Chris D'Amico and Ned Heiskell, executive producer Roderick Hills, translation by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay, original music by Scott Pender, set by Tony Cisek, lighting by John R. Mirvish, costumes by Heidi Daniels, directed by D'Amico. With Cecily Patterson, Richard Henrich, Carol Monda, Jose Luzarraga, Namu Lwanga, Jeffrey Pitts, Matthew Pauli, Raymond Ficca, Amy Jagodnik, Cornell Womack, Erik Sandvold, Mphela Makgoba, Fiona Hogan and Jayemaria Conte Gentry. At the Church Street Theater, 1742 Church St. NW, through Aug. 19.