BWW Reviews: THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS Greek Tragedy Turned Joyous with Gospel Music
It is hard not to like The Gospel at Colonus, the current Zach revival at the Topfer Theatre. The production is at once joyous and tragic; beautifully rich and amazingly stark - it will have you on your feet swaying to heartfelt, robust gospel music and it will also push you hard in your seat as you contemplate the tragic life of the main character(s).
As soon as you enter the theatre, you are transported into what looks to be a Pentecostal revival tent, complete with the topping of a canopy which turns out to be an excellent canvas for Michelle Habeck's brilliant lighting design. Both the scenery and costumes served the production well and were designed by Court Watson - but it was Ms Habeck's lighting design that caught my eye in the crowded field of a very talented production team. Upstage center is a remarkable five-piece orchestra helmed by Musical Director, Allen Robertson. It was nice to see the musicians on stage, as so often at Zach, they are in the orchestra pit which is usually covered and out of sight of the audience
Colonus tells the story of the last days of Oedipus from Greek mythology. If you are like me, although you originally learned of Oedipus from Sophocles and Euripides, your main familiarization is from Freud and his famous (infamous) Oedipus complex. So before you make your way to Zach Theater (and you should), you may want to pay a visit to Wikipedia to bone up on the story because it is difficult to follow in this two hour production.
The story, conceived and adapted by Lee Breuer, tells of Oedipus, who inadvertently killed his own father and married his mother who bore four of his children (did I mention you should read Wikipedia?). Horrified by his own behavior, he blinded himself and left his home country, along with his two daughters, Antigone & Ismene. The three roamed the countryside til they came to Colonus and our story begins.
To start the show, we see Evangelist Antigone, ably played by Janis M. Stinson, enter from the back of the house. She is dressed for church in a bright yellow outfit, singing "Down By The Riverside." Very soon she is joined by many more singers, dressed in neutral colored choir robes as they make their way to the stage and the choir pews upstage right.
The story is told by the preacher, who in this production is half the character of Oedipus. We quickly learn that the three main characters, Oedipus and his two daughters, are each played by two, color-coordinated actors. Oedipus is played by Eugene Lee & Tim Curry (they are billed as Preacher Oedipus and Singer Oedipus); Antigone is played by Ms. Stinson & Michelle Alexander; and Ismene is played by Felicia Dinwiddie & Jacqui Cross. All of these veteran performers did an excellent job, but to me, the highlight was Mr. Curry who played Singer Oedipus. He excelled in depicting the wide range of emotions that fraught Oedipus as he sought redemption and finally release in Colonus - the pathos, joy and revelation.
I actually believe that the plot of The Gospel at Colonus is secondary to the music, wonderfully composed by Bob Telson with lyrics by Mr. Breur, and the overall experience of this show. The story and plot seem more of a vehicle to show off the incredible talents of this cast of singers & musicians than to transport the audience to ancient Greece to tell a tale. The idea of taking Greek tragedy (which I have trouble sitting through) and bringing it to life through gospel and rhythm & blues is brilliant. This is why Director, Dave Steakley, may have made the right decision in having two actors play each main character, many of whom were in Mr. Steakley' s original production at the Zach in 1996 (the original Broadway run was in 1988). It is too bad though, that the singing talents of Ms. Stinson and Ms. Dinwiddie are underused as the "evangelist" side of their characters did not sing very much.
There were some plot points that seemed extraneous and unexplained, such as the time the two daughters were kidnapped by Creon (Billy Harden) then suddenly returned with, seemingly, no explanation. But, as mentioned, I don't think the plot is why you want to see this production - you want to get lost in those soulful melodies and be lifted up. There is even a tip of the hat to R & B groups like the Four Tops and the Temptations, in the guise of the Oedipus Quartet, to bring a smile to everyone's faces.
The eleven o'clock number came at around 10:15 when featured soloist, Judy R. Arnold commanded the stage and knocked my socks off in the number "Lift Him Up." I'm pretty sure my fellow audience members were also left sockless as we were all on our feet, hootin' and hollerin.' The show should have ended there - standing ovation guaranteed (don't get me started about standing ovations). But instead, the show continued for one more scene as the youngest member of the cast, The Child (Kendal White) came on stage to ask if Oedipus died (spoiler alert) painlessly.
This production of The Gospel of Colonus is one of the better shows that I've seen at Zach and it is a shame that it is a relatively short run (it closes April 27th). It should run long enough to allow it to by everyone in the Austin area.
The Gospel At Colonus is at Zach Theatre's Topfer; 202 South Lamar, Austin, TX 78704. Running now through April 27th. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30. Tickets are $25 - 70. www.zachtheatre.org or 512-476-0541.
Photo Credit: Kirk Tuck