Clarence Brown's "Oedipus the King" Leaves the Audience Out of the Action

CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story stated that on opening night CBT Artistic Director Cal MacLean informed the audience that the News Sentinel would not be reviewing any more UT plays this season due to budget cutbacks. However, MacLean says his comments were intended to apply only to this production of Oedipus, and it is his understanding that the News Sentinel will continue to review CBT plays later this season.

What is theater? That's a big question, possibly better suited for a graduate seminar than a newspaper review, but one brought up by Cal MacLean, the producing artistic director of the Clarence Brown Theatre, on the opening night of Oedipus the King. Following the appropriate thank-yous to the sponsors, MacLean announced that the Knoxville News Sentinel, due to cutbacks, would not be reviewing this production. MacLean added his own concern: If theater isn't reviewed, then the discussion that theater is becomes lessened. It loses a voice.

Regardless of the role in which MacLean casts a reviewer—one which I see as being overstated—his vision of theater as a discussion intrigues the overeducated geek in me. Did he mean that all theater is a discussion? Or did he mean "discussion" as a standard to which all theatre productions aspire? How does this discussion present itself? And who is involved? Certainly the playwright, but the reading of a play alone can't be regarded as theater. Obviously, the performance of a play is theater, but does it always reach the level of discussion? Whatever MacLean meant, an engaged audience is central to any definition of theater as a discussion.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King is one of Western drama's oldest tragedies, and it poses an enormous challenge to any production: We all know the story. We all know that we're going to watch a fated man fall miserably to hellish depths. We all know that Oedipus unknowingly killed his father 11 years before the opening scene, that he assumed his father's throne, and that he then married his father's wife, who is also his own mother. What makes Oedipus so profoundly exciting is that even though we know as much as we do—or think we do, anyway—we get to witness the characters' realization of what they have done and how limited their power is to fight their fates. We're allowed to watch a production struggle to communicate something new through a play that's thoroughly ingrained in our collective cultural memory. And we're excited by the possible experience of this discussion.

But we can only experience it if the production lets the audience in on the conversation. Unfortunately, Clarence Brown's Oedipus the King didn't quite do that. The hour-and-a-half production made me feel more like being spoken at rather than spoken with.

With its crumbling facade and looming large doors bookended with dictatorial images of the king, Mary Pingree's set design of the palace—although visually and technically outstanding—seemed more appropriate for Waiting for Godot than for Oedipus.

Jeremy Holm's Oedipus was singular in his passion. He began with such bravado and energy that I was excited to see his journey. At first, I expected that he would devolve with each new revelation of his horrid deeds, to the point that he would barely able to utter his character's last few lines of supplication on his way to self-imposed exile. Imagine an Oedipus blinded and kneeling, barely able to utter "Do not take my children." A simple and silent surrender to the power of fate. Unfortunately, Holm grew louder, which drove the disaffected audience, at least on opening night, to laugh while his Oedipus smacked his head in existential angst. I never anticipated the truth of Oedipus and his relationship with his mother to garner chuckles. Jed Diamond as Teiresias was genius in his physical work, but he seemed too easily consumed by Mr. Holm's raging Oedipus.

While much of the evening never reached the level of its intended discussion, there were spots where the work on stage presented beautiful images, allowing the audience—if only for a moment—to take part. Elizabeth Norment's Jocasta inspired a sense of awe as she described the pierced ankles of her abandoned child. Ned Schmidtke's description of the scene where he received the poor child from the empathetic shepherd was laden with vivid images; you could almost smell the hillside and hear the clomping of the herd as the two discussed the abandoned Oedipus' future.

Marianne Custer's costume designs complemented well the dictatorial feel of the set, and Terry Silver-Alford's original music was a pleasant and much appreciated respite. Jennifer Tipton's lighting design was extraordinary in how it lit every space, leaving no unintended shadow—a laudable feat for the three-quarter thrust stage of the Carousel Theatre—and its midday brightness reminded us that devastation needs no passage of time; all can be lost in a single afternoon.

But even with the immensely talented performers and designers, Clarence Brown Theatre's Oedipus the King is disappointing, especially in light of MacLean's view of theatre as "discussion." To be a part of the experience, to have the outside world dissipate into the storming night and be replaced with the smells, sounds and reality of Sophocles' Thebes is the task at hand. But the evening felt more like a lecture and far less the shared and investigative experience that theatre can be: a discussion of where we've come, where we are, and where we are going.