Theater Review: OEDIPUS (Deaf West Theatre at The Getty Outdoor Theatre in Malibu)

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by Tony Frankel on September 19, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


Since its premiere in c. 429 BC, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King has been considered the Mount Olympus of Greek Tragedies, largely because it humanizes the theme of fate, a subject that fascinated the Greek culture; personally, I warrant that a story which contains patricide, unholy incest, self-mutilation and not leaving well enough alone excites and shocks spectators, but these issues also serve as brilliant metaphors that summon up our own thoughts about predestination and free will.

But with long monologues, Greek choruses, and stilted translations, and overwrought acting any Greek drama can be a slog. I have seen four productions of Oedipus, and they all suffered the same fate (if you will), of straightforward tellings — even as the sad tale of Oedipus is still one of the best stories to come from the theater. Yet I went to the J. Paul Getty amphitheater in Malibu with the hopes that Deaf West Theatre would solve the erstwhile problematic storytelling. And by Zeus, they did it. This amazing company not only created one of the most visceral, palpable, and creative productions I have ever experienced, it turns out to be one of the best shows of the year.

Director and adapter Jenny Koons (from a translation of Oedipus the King by Ian Johnston) worked with American Sign Language adaptors Andrew Morrill and Alexandria Wailes to find ways to dig deeper into the tragedy by having the story refreshingly told in ASL and English. At one time, Deaf West often had shows in which actors would speak what another is signing, but now — as they did with Spring Awakening — there are more creative devices including projections, different actors to interpret someone speaking in ASL, and — in one harrowing scene — having no sound whatsoever when a hard-of-hearing actor makes her account of a death palpable and all too understandable.

As portrayed by the brave, sensitive, and fiery actor Russell Harvard, righteous and sensitive Oedipus knows he is the obvious choice to rescue Thebes. It was he alone who outwitted a sphinx that menaced the city several years back – a ravenous beast devouring anyone unable to solve her riddles. Clever Oedipus vanquished that monster and became husband to Queen Jocasta, with whom he has sons and daughters in Thebes. This still youthful king and undisputed hero rules with magisterial pride.

Now Oedipus is tasked with finding the cause of Thebes’ new devastation. He vows avenging wrath upon those responsible, but soon struggles with an oracle’s dread revelation that the cause of Thebes’ misery is a man who has murdered his royal father and defiled the bed of his mother. As harrowing details of Oedipus’s unknown past begin falling into place, the evidence points more and more to the Theban king himself. (And that’s all you’re going to get out of me.)

The cast members are unequivocally wonderful: a regal and intense Jon Wolfe Nelson plays Oedipus’s brother-in-law Creon; seer Tiresias is given a creepy and powerful turn by Ashlea Hayes; and Oedipus’ wife Jocasta is played by adapter Alexandria Wailes in a roller-coaster ride of accelerating anxiety — her sudden shift from reason to alarm is magnificent. The sets are basically the back of the amphitheater (which has new temporary seats with backs, but that has removed much-needed leg room). I have no idea what costumer Jojo Siu‘s mostly grey-hued and dark Star Trek-meets-suits outfits are all about, but they looked cool. It was Jared A. Sayeg‘s dramatic lights and Yee Eun Nam‘s eerie projections that made a huge difference.

In this setting, the audience members become citizens of Thebes as actors come through the aisles. Ultimately, it is we who serve as both judge and jury of this tale and its characters. It is we who establish where the lines are drawn as to whether an individual’s actions have been governed by their destiny or their free will. And now it is  your turn to take your place as a fellow citizen to serve in judgment. Deaf West’s Oedipus is beautifully executed and magnificently crafted.

production photos by Craig  Schwartz

Deaf West Theatre
Getty Villa Outdoor Theatre, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Thurs-Sat at 8
ends on October 1, 2022
for tickets, call 310.440.7300 or visit Getty

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