BWW Review: WSC Avant Bard's THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS a Brilliant Revival
There's nothing kills a play's reputation like the label "Classic;" if you want to bury it even deeper, call it "Classical." We're allergic to the idea that the old stuff was actually worth watching, the dialogue worth listening to.
Sure, we'll go to see revivals of recent hits, the same way we get up and dance to the "golden oldies" which thrilled us in our misspent youth. But anything that smacks of timelessness and eternal truths? Meh.
And yet occasionally a theatrical genius will come along and, in a masterstroke, show us why some works endure. Lee Breuer, co-founder of the Mabou Mines company in New York, created a setting for Sophocles' great tragedy Oedipus at Colonus that became an instant hit; an instant, truly American hit. Not bad for a moldy, 2,400-year-old script.
Breuer's The Gospel at Colonus takes Sophocles' meditation on mortality, sin and redemption and brings it solidly into the American mainstream. Moving beyond the old concept of tragedy as emotional catharsis, Breuer shows how tragedy can actually fill us with joy and gratitude. He turns the theatre into an evangelical meeting house, the protagonist into a preacher; and for the chorus, the finely-tuned, passionate voices of praise that can fill the soul of a Sunday. It worked famously back in the 80's when first produced, and it works even more famously now.
The Gospel at Colonus, revived at WSC Avant Bard under the inspired direction of Jennifer l. Nelson, is one of the most joyous experiences in live theatre you are likely to see. This musical version of Greek Tragedy offers a meditation on the deeper meaning of one of antiquity's most notorious myths-of Oedipus, the king who infamously murdered his own father and married his mother.
In The Gospel at Colonus we find Oedipus, for years a wandering exile from his native city of Thebes, approaching his final resting place in Colonus, a village just north of Athens. His daughters, Antigone and Ismene, accompany him but because of his reputation, the local populace initially rejects him. As word of his arrival reaches the city, however, the mythical Athenian king Theseus comes out to greet him, welcomes him to his kingdom and vows to keep secret the precise location of Oedipus' passing. The city of Thebes, meanwhile, is in the midst of a civil war, with the struggle for succession fully engaged between Oedipus' two sons Eteocles and Polyneices. First Creon, his brother-in-law, and then Polyneices try to ensnare Oedipus in their plots for the throne; both are forcefully rejected. Oedipus moves on, stoically, to his final rest, with the turmoil of his life and Thebes firmly behind him.
One of Breuer's innovations was to have the role of Oedipus played by two actors, one for spoken dialogue and the other for the musical numbers. In WSC Avant Bard's production, the Preacher Oedipus is given a forceful turn by William T. Newman, Jr., while the Singer Oedipus is gloriously incarnated by DeMone, whose soaring voice fills the space at Theatre Two and leaves you breathless. Tiffany Bird and Ashley D. Buster offer touching turns as his daughters Antigone and Ismene, while the production's musical director e'Marcus Harper-Short has a subtle turn as Creon, Oedipus' scheming brother-in-law. There is a host of fine voices here, including Brandon Mack, Greg Watkins (who puts in a strong Polyneices) and topped off by Minister Becky Jays Jenkins and her Women's Ecumenical Choir.
The production is also graced by its setting; from the moment you enter the theatre you are embraced by TIM JOnes's open space in spring, with birds chirping (courtesy Jason Schmitz's subtle sound design) and wisteria blossoms hung over the multi-level performance area. Danielle Preston has added contemporary and African motifs with her costume design, and choreographer Sandra Holloway manages the complex action of the play, creating some wonderful tableaux.
This incarnation of The Gospel at Colonus only has two more weeks in Arlington's Gunston Theatre Two space - it's a truly remarkable production, and a testament to WSC Avant Brad's commitment to innovative classics.
Production Photo: Tiffany Bird as Antigone and DeMone as Oedipus. Photo by DJ Corey Photography.
Running Time: 1 hours, 30 minutes with no intermission.
Gospel at Colonus runs through March 26 at Gunston Theatre Two, 2700 South Lang Street, Arlington, VA.
Tickets are available online at AvantBard.org/tickets or by calling 703-418-4808.