‘That cat Oedipus is a bad mother-…”
“But I’m talkin’ ’bout Oedipus.”
In Will Power’s often blazing, at times reductive hip-hop take on Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes, Oedipus is an “OG”: an “original gangsta.” He struts like John Shaft and drives a “pimped-out Caddy.” For reasons that could be made clearer, he’s cursed his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, to slay each other. Despite protestations of got-your-back loyalty, including the vow to stay tight “till Homer is a kid on a cartoon show,” they war and die before the seventh gate of Thebes.
In the original, Oedipus’s motives for the curse are trivial: his sons drank from a golden cup against his wishes and served him too small a portion of meat. Also in the original, Oedipus has a crazed tragic stature: when he learned he killed his father and married his mother, the King of Thebes gouged out his eyes.
For the La Jolla Playhouse production, Edwin Lee Gibson plays Oedipus, and what he does is great: especially dancing James Brown’s double-toe slides, as if putting out two cigarettes at once, and crawling off the stage caped, as in Brown’s famous “Please, please” exit (did he have a heart attack?) and miraculous reentry. But the dazzle omits a key fact: Oedipus has known blinding agony. Few in dramatic history suffer as much. The pain gets lost in Gibson’s pimp-attire and red-rimmed glasses — through which the character sees clearly — and “Mack Daddy” attitude.
The Seven is a “remix.” The term comes from music. In its simplest form, it’s a familiar song performed in an alternate version. The idea became popular when reggae producers of the early ’70s (including Lee “Scratch” Perry) dubbed an original, or dropped vocals, or added reverb and echoes, and nudged a familiar tune beyond the score. Hip-hop music now uses “sampling” to combine old and new. The familiar undergoes a brief, or lengthy, sea-change. It becomes both present and not.
A remix isn’t just relocating Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Victorian era, or even a Charlie Parker solo. It combines both versions at the same time. Like Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, in which the Ice Age and dinosaurs thrive in Escelsior, New Jersey, a remix is synchronic: then and now coexist. In effect, a remix is a quest to make sense amid information overload or — in what has become the quest of post-Postmodernism — of groping one’s way through a deconstructed universe.
In Power’s remix, now often trumps then, especially in the figure of Oedipus (who never appears in the original and needs more gravitas here). Not that Aeschylus wrote a masterpiece. It’s an early, often bombastic work. Sophocles turned the last third into Antigone.
A DJ, played by Chinasa Ogubagu, becomes our narrative thread. She plays a sonorous old recording of Seven Against Thebes, so stately it sounds ancient, and boasts “there are no worlds I cannot mix.” Under the DJ’s guidance, the actors fast-forward, loop, and rewind. The stage becomes a visualization of the music, at times hectic, at others bang-on target, and always performed with precision.
Power, who gives the brothers’ names a different spelling, has found stark contemporary parallels in Aeschylus. The brothers have a bond, 24/7-inviolable. Oedipus curses them to divide the kingdom and always be at war. “When the gods give evil,” Etiocles says in the original, “you cannot escape their gift.” But can their modern counterparts fight it by being sensible: just keep apart, rule every other year, stay cool? Can they break the curse? Can today’s youth break the cycle of violence?
Oedipus’s father Laius began the curse by defying the gods and having a son. In one of the show’s most arresting scenes, Eteocles imagines an endless chain of curses, from Laius’s giant shadow on the wall choking Oedipus, on an upper platform, to Eteocles, to today.
As the brothers, rational Eteocles and artistic Polynices, Benton Greene and Jamyl Dobson are outstanding. They move as if in two eras at once: the stylized ritual of Theban royalty, and the free flow of today (their epic single combat, brilliantly choreographed by Bill T. Jones, also combines both). Most significant: they reach the emotional core of Aeschylus and Will Power’s scripts: a hunger for hatred (in Statius’s Thebaid, a later version of the story, the flames of their funeral pyres split in two, like tongues, and snap at each other).
Under Jo Bonney’s direction, The Seven moves at such a relentless pace it almost does a disservice to Power’s rich language and rocketing rhymes. But information overload is part of a remix aesthetic. Like the DJ, you must find your way, make sense where possible, connect when you can. If you go to The Seven with fixed notions of what musicals must do, it will disappoint. Carousel it isn’t. But if you bring a willingness to let it happen — to go where the play takes you — it could surprise.
The Seven, book and lyrics by Will Power, music by Power, Will Hammond, and Justin Ellington, based on Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes
La Jolla Playhouse, Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Directed by Jo Bonney; cast: Jamyl Dobson, Edwin Lee Gibson, Flaco Navaja, Benton Greene, Uzo Aduba, Shawtane Monroe Bowen, Dashiell Eaves, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Postell Pringle, Pearl Sun, Charles Turner, Bernard White; scenic design, Richard Hoover; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, David Weiner; sound, Darron L. West; choreography, Bill T. Jones
Playing through March 16; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.