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Theater Review: Oedipus Complex at the Goodman Theatre

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Looks great, less filling.

A couple of years ago, as they were just getting started and had been hailed as "the next Steppenwolf," the House Theatre created a show based on the premise that it would be a bold choice to explore the tale of Peter Pan, with all the obvious Oedipal themes apparent in the story, by having a psychoanalyst character pop up occasionally and, well, psychoanalyze Peter Pan throughout.

While lauded as great theater by many, I hated it for one reason: if you're going to introduce a character who is designed to plumb the depths of your protagonist's psyche, then plumb the freaking depths and introduce ideas I don't already know. I knew Peter Pan had an Oedipal Complex from watching the Disney cartoon, and if you can't dig deeper than Disney, then don't waste my time.

Around the same time, in Oregon, Frank Galati had a similar idea, although a bit more adult in concept: stage Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and fold within it the commentary provided by Sigmund Freud in 1900 in his The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud introduced the world to the concept of a universally held Oedipal complex (our first sexual impulse directed at our mothers, our first murderous impulse directed at our fathers).

The idea not only made sense, but also attempted to meld a more modern perspective on an ancient Greek text. Originally staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the piece was a hit and opened last night at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, with it's massive budget and brilliant scenic designers. Galati should be commended for the boldness of the experiment. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, Galati does no better in utilizing the conceit of having a psychoanalyst character plumb the depths of a great character any deeper than skin deep than those kids at the House.

Once again, I was blown away by the vast imagination used to create a scenic design that recalls a Victorian lecture hall designed by M. C. Escher and a series of absolutely beautiful stage pictures. Galati's staging has elements of updated Greek chorus with dashes of Julie Taymor thrown in and has a haunting elegance that emphasizes the loneliness and pathos of a character trapped by destiny (although, if you're going to borrow from Taymor, a bit more precision in movement is required to make it work).

The acting was spotty. Where in Radio Golf the presentational acting was out of place in a play that required a more naturalistic approach to soften the hard edges of a series of unexpected monologues, the only actor onstage that brings the necessary gravitas and vocal range required of a Greek tragedy is Roderick Peeples as Kreon. The rest, including both Nick Sandys as Freud and Ben Viccelio as Oedipus, seem weak and lost in the shuffle.

If you're going to stage a Greek tragedy on a football field of black and white squares, the actors need to command that stage and own the crisp but stilted language in a highly presentational style, not merely stand and talk. Peeples clearly gets the music of such text and delivers it as an opera singer would a great aria. Everyone else is doing karaoke.

On a special note, Jeffrey Baumgartner's performance as the prophet Teiresias is notable in both the endless loops of repeating information for an interminable length and for his dead-on impersonation of Dr. Strangelove.

The most devastating problem, however, lies not in the production itself, but in the script. In the end, we leave with knowledge that Oedipus had an Oedipal Complex and that Freud had an Oedipal Complex. That's about it. Nothing more. I suppose for some, that in and of itself is a revelation, but I have to assume that, like me, most people going to see Oedipus Complex already knew that.

The opportunity to bridge the two parallel men with a scene that has Freud confronting Oedipus and digging deeper into each other is squandered and overlooked and thus, the experiment to modernize the Oedipus story fails. The piece starts with Freud lecturing us abut the story of Oedipus and, while we get to see the story unfold, it never changes or grows from that simple beginning – a lecture about Oedipus.

Note to all writers who use a psychoanalyst character as narrator in a play about a tragic figure: If you can figure out the psychological problems of the protagonist by reading An Incomplete Education or in a quick Google search, dig deeper for the love of all that is Holy!

Coming to the theater last night, I knew Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. I knew Sigmund Freud created a theory based on observations within himself and his own dreams that used the Oedipus story to bring the theory home. I knew Freud's wet nurse bathed him. Leaving the theater last night, I knew nothing more and nothing less.

Oedipus Complex adapted and directed by Frank Galati, presented by the Goodman Theater.

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About Angry White Guy in Chicago

  • Chris

    “…including both Nick Sandys as Freud and Ben Viccelio as Oedipus, seem weak and lost in the shuffle.”

    I said the same comment to my wife after I saw the play last night. Ben’s voice wasn’t strong enough to make the lines come to life.

    I also agree with your final comments. The play, although visually interesting, didn’t really leave the people who watched with anything “new” to take from the play. We just watched the “action”.