Theater Review: THE GOSPEL AT COLONUS (Getty Villa Outdoor Theatre in Malibu)

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by Tony Frankel on September 7, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


Created by Lee Breuer and Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus — a Greek tragedy turned Pentecostal revival — had its original 1983 production at the fBrooklyn Academy of Music in New York with Morgan Freeman as the preacher and the great Blind Boys of Alabama as Oedipus. If, you’ve never seen it, the show is a rouser. Now, this Greek to Gospel adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus — the middle play in Sophocles’ trilogy between Oedipus Rex and Antigone — slammed into Malibu’s Getty Villa last night courtesy of the great Court Theatre in Chicago (the company of which previously played the Getty with Iphigenia in Aulis).

Co-directed with both adrenaline-inducing choral wonderments and elegant intimate moments by Mark J.P. Hood and Court Artistic Director Charles Newell with associate director TaRon Patton, this fascinating adaptation of an exceedingly challenging story plays so naturally into the customs and traditions of Black churches that it boggles the mind. Told in rhythmic, uplifting, and expressive song, featuring great soloists and responsive spiritual music from the best voices in gospel music from the Chicagoland area, plus a tight five-piece band, the amphitheater came alive as a jumping, jamming joint of jubilation.

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, yet these issues also serve as brilliant metaphors that summon up our own thoughts about predestination and free will.

In the first Oedipus play, 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 two sons and two daughters in Thebes. This still youthful king and undisputed hero rules with magisterial pride. When he discovers that Jocasta is his mother (making his children his siblings as well), and that he unwittingly killed his own father, Oedipus — after Jocasta kills herself — blinds himself as punishment for his sins and wanders the world for twenty years. In the second play, where Oedipus is now cared for by first one and then both daughters, he is guided back to Thebes, desiring now to go home and die quietly. But as you probably know, nothing is quiet in Greek storytelling. Yet, what Gospel at Colonus does is turn a tale of tragedy into one of redemption.

In stirring and fiery language, Mark Spates Smith in the role of Theseus pontificates as narrator, interpreter, and spiritual leader, who preaches the Gospel at his “loud” African American church. We, the audience, serve as his congregants and are all encouraged to join in and affirm his inspired message. Today’s sermon has to do with the parable of the life of Oedipus and the lessons that we can learn from it. We see Oedipus (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) in his waning years, arriving in the sacred city of Colonus. Putting himself into his own version of hell so that he would suffer on earth through the end of his days, he wears dark glasses and stumbles about, only to be reliant on his daughter Antigone (Aeriel Williams, in a fantastically stylish costume by Raquel Adorno) to lead him everywhere. At Colonus, the two of them catch up with his missing daughter, Antigone’s sister Ismene (Ariana Burks) in a tearful reunion. But when the citizens there learn his name, they are immediately stunned and turn away from him.

King Creon of Thebes (Jason Huysman, the only white performer) makes an appearance and tells Oedipus and his followers that he is welcome to return home from exile. This offer is met by glares and stares by Oedipus’s adherents. It is after Creon leaves for good that Oedipus’s son Polyneices (Kai A. Ealy) comes on the scene and is cursed by his father for his disrespect, presumably because he wants to fight his brother Eteocles for the Theban throne.

But Theseus, being Oedipus’s defender, reminds us what the Pentecostal Church teaches: that even a flawed man like Oedipus is never beyond redemption. In fact, it is his flaws that add power to his story. The connection is made between his life and ours — indeed, don’t we always fall short of perfection? We are born into circumstances beyond our control and come into sin often not by intent but by happenstance. Pentecostalism says that we can be saved by grace and thus can be redeemed and wind up in heaven. Our tale ends with the death of Oedipus. We witness how he and his soul are restored mystically by God.

The lighting design by Keith Parham is a bit odd and sparse for the Getty, with a lot of shadows and lights sometimes staring us in the face. The sound design by Sarah Ramos is a minor miracle, given the demands of Getty’s privileged neighbors, who have deemed the summer outdoor plays (this is the 17th) too noisy for their taste. We can hear every word. Sad to say, but that BIG gospel sound is muted by a soft band and unmiked singers, with the amphitheater just swallowing up the roar of the soul. Yes, the production is fab and the singers positively glorious, but we were robbed of the spine-tingling chill that comes from soaring unfettered gospel. This made the very full opening night crowd tepid in their responses. Perhaps the time has come for the Getty to invest in headphones for patrons, so performers can be as loud as they want. Damn neighbors!! (And we’re back to the love.)

The Gospel at Colonus cast includes Shari Addison (Choragos, Soloist), Eric A. Lewis (Choragos), Juwon Tyrel Perry (The Friend, Chorus), Jessica Brooke Seals (Evangelist, Chorus) and Cherise Thomas (Chorus). Other chorus members are Jerica Exum, Shantina Lynet’, Isaac Ray, and Eva Ruwé.

photos by Craig Schwartz Photography 2023
poster photo by Joe Mazza

Gospel at Colonus
Court Theatre
Getty Villa Outdoor Theatre, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway
Thurs-Sat at 8
ends on September 30, 2023
for tickets ($40-$55), call 310.440.7300 or visit Getty

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