Local talents outshine celebrity in “The Oedipus Plays”

By placing Avery Brooks in the title role of “The Oedipus Plays,” the Shakespeare Theatre may have assured themselves of successful ticket sales. But what they earn in name recognition they lose in overall quality.

Brooks, probably known best for his recurring role as Captain Sisko on the television series “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” possesses a resume of stage and small screen roles that lend credence to his small-time celebrity status. But as Oedipus, Brooks presents himself as anything but a seasoned actor. A standout supporting cast obscures Brook’s portrayal of one of Greek drama’s most tragic characters.

“The Oedipus Plays,” directed and adapted by Michael Kahn, artistic director for the Shakespeare Theatre, condenses three existing plays, “Oedipus Rex,” “Oedipus at Colonus” and “Antigone,” into one evening of theater. Granted, that evening lasts well over three hours, but to cut it any shorter would have only blunted the event’s impact.

In “Oedipus Rex,” Oedipus, king of Thebes, pledges to his citizens that he will avenge the death of their previous king, Laius. As Oedipus spurns the warnings of ancient visionary Teiresias (Earle Hyman) and his wife Jocasta (Petronia Paley), he reveals a truth so horrible that he blinds himself in disgust.

“Oedipus at Colonus,” perhaps the least read and least compelling of this trilogy of plays, follows an exiled, elderly Oedipus as he wanders to his final resting place, Colonus. Knowing that his corpse will bring luck to its gravesite, his son and brother-in-law each implore him to return to Thebes. But he refuses. Oedipus chooses instead to die in this suburb of Athens under the protection of Theseus, played by an imposing, sure-footed Johnny Lee Davenport.

The evening’s high point comes from “Antigone.” This final play brings a number of lower-profile actors to the forefront, including John Livingston Rolle as a comical Watchman. Michael Genet portrays the demanding role of Creon through all three stories and brings a satisfying consistency to the many-sided character.

Kahn’s concept for the “The Oedipus Plays” moves the setting from Ancient Greece to Africa, sending the style for scenery, costumes, score and choreography off in a lively new direction. This movement is most evident in the portrayal of the 10-person chorus, whose words are accompanied by music and dance. But Nicholas Rudall’s translation of the text holds the chorus back, as it lacks the lyricism and rhythm necessary to match its life.

As a whole, “The Oedipus Plays” provides a satisfying, worthwhile stage production of a series that most people have only read as literature. Kahn dusts the three plays off and returns them rightfully to the stage

Although his encompassing adaptation gives audiences an uncommonly clear vision of the tragic series, he may have done better to focus his efforts on restoring to glory one of Sophocles’ three plays.

In choosing from “The Oedipus Plays,” “Antigone” would be the clear choice, if not for its driving story then at least for its exclusion of Brooks as the title role.

“The Oedipus Plays” is now playing at The Shakespeare Theatre

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