A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)

Sam Shepard’s brilliant new version of Oedipus Rex for Derry’s Field Day folds Greek myth into an ageless Americana

Stephen Rea and Bríd Brennan, who play Oedipus and Jocasta

Stephen Rea and Bríd Brennan, who play Oedipus and Jocasta


A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)
Playhouse, Derry

“That’s where it all begins,” says a forensics expert at the scene of a brutal murder, pointing at scuff marks in the desert sand. “Right there.” Well, at least he’s certain. His accomplice, a highway patrolman, sees only butchery, “like the old days”.

In Sam Shepard’s brilliant retelling of Oedipus Rex, both characters are right: Field Day’s premiere folds Greek myth into an ageless Americana, as though that is where it all begins.

Frank Conway’s set, sealed in white tiles, is a grimly beautiful cross between an abattoir and a city morgue. Here, a man in janitorial overalls first appears to mop the blood that streams forever from his eyes.

“This was the place, wasn’t it?” asks Stephen Rea’s haunted, baffled Oedipus. In director Nancy Meckler’s compelling and lyrically strange staging, it’s the place where Uncle Del (an excellent Lloyd Hutchinson, the first of a few oracles) may string out entrails on a wash line, or roll small bones on the floor like a game of dice and predict a kingpin’s fate: Laius’s son will kill him, and marry his mother. “The bones never lie.”

Shepard has long found echoes of ancient myth in Californian avocado farms or a Mojave motel room. His fractured, briskly episodic take on Oedipus is fascinating for its arch transposition, individual focus and wry updating (a young woman haggling over the cost of having her infant killed could be the stuff of Greek tragedy or a supermarket tabloid).

More remarkably, though, he pulls the Oedipus legend up by its roots, fits it with earthy new poetry, straddles it between comedy and tragedy, and splinters characters and time frames to construct an eternal dilemma.

Oedipus may be the world’s first detective story, as the chewed-up dialogue and film noir slivers of John Comiskey’s lights affirm, but this case is never cracked.

“If we could read all these signs we could put the whole thing back together again,” the wheelchair-bound Otto tells his wife Jocelyn. These are Stephen Rea and the exquisite Bríd Brennan, who also play Oedipus and Jocasta. Otto and Jocelyn may be the same characters reconsidered, but Rea’s performance here is the more astonishing, while both he and Shepard seem in fetters with Oedipus: timid where he should be hubristic, introspective where he should be blind to the truth.

That may explain why the play’s last two scenes are disappointing, leaning hard on Sophoclean equivalents rather than finding uniquely Shepardian correspondence. When Otto casually asks his daughter Annalee (played with softness and steel by Judith Roddy) “who’d he kill this time?” the line is perfectly dry and cyclical, suggesting that Shepard should lead us not finally into Oedipus’s exile but right back to his crossroads. That isn’t where it all begins. It’s where it never ends. Until December 7

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