Sin and redemption. You’re giving a sermon on the theme and want the most extreme case you can find: someone with nary a prayer for salvation. In Lee Breuer’s The Gospel at Colonus, the Preacher at a Pentecostal church inserts a Greek myth into his text. He quotes “the Book of Oedipus” in the Bible (“Damned in his birth, in his marriage damned, damned in the blood he shed with his own hand”) and cites lines 275 through 279 in Exodus, “where it speaks of his death in a place called Colonus.”
The Preacher talks without flinching, as if Oedipus were an Old Testament book, even though Christianity and ancient Greece are poles apart. Before you can quibble about the differences between, say, Hades and heaven, the oratorio begins and, as the Preacher says, “You are no longer in command here.”
From a Christian point of view, it’s hard to imagine a greater sinner than Oedipus. He murdered his father, married his mother, and had four children. When he found out what he had done, Oedipus blinded himself with his mother’s broaches and suffered a living hell for decades.
Less familiar is how he died. In Sophocles’s final drama, Oedipus at Colonus, it’s the last day of Oedipus’s life. The withered old man finds sanctuary at Colonus, a sacred wood just north of Athens. Oedipus slowly transforms from a haggard, “evil” being to the Greek/Christian equivalent of a holy man — a spirit of the place. He either goes to heaven or the door of the Underworld opens “with love” (the script offers both). “Indeed his end was wonderful if mortal’s ever was.”
Breuer said he took the idea from Zora Neale Hurston (author of the required read: Their Eyes Were Watching God). She said that, as in a Pentecostal church, ancient Greek tragedies built to a catharsis. If these rituals work their wonders, “that catharsis can go right on through pity and terror to joy.”
The Ira Aldridge Players’ opening night was probably better than the audience heard. Persistent problems with hand-held and pinned-on microphones made some speeches and lyrics hard to follow. Important information didn’t register. And it must, since the stage, with multiple quartets and quintets blazing gospel music, resembles a kaleidoscope in motion.
Two men play Oedipus (along with the “Oedipus’s Quintet”: four men in white tuxedoes and wearing sunglasses, like the blind Oedipus); two women, Antigone. The script gives no explanation for the doubling, though it may be a sly means of keeping the audience off guard and “not in command here.” Gospel doesn’t come to you. It’s there, swirling in mysteries and revelations. You must go to it and, if it grabs, surrender.
Even with repeated sound glitches and some missed lighting cues, the Ira Aldridge Players’ Gospel grabbed firmly on occasion. The singers made that happen, from Claude Bell’s acoustic, octave-leaping falsetto (“Fair Colonus”), to Roosevelt Carter’s solos and interwoven musical asides, to booming choral numbers, and to every note Aaron Holland belted as Singer/Oedipus.
The production took off about five songs in. When Oedipus learns he’ll be safe at Colonus, Holland sang “A Voice Foretold.” After a slow introduction, Holland suddenly clapped his hands three times. The tight background band kicked the jubilant song up-tempo, and the whole stage came alive. Holland’s rendition of the lament, “Lift Me Up” (“I wish the wind would lift me/ So I could look with the eyes of angels/ For the child that I love”) was also deeply moving.
Until the end, male singers dominated Gospel. Then Angela Petty came downstage. She sang “Lift Him Up,” blew the EXIT signs off the walls, and corrected the gender-imbalance with one song.
A rule I learned early: never, ever “type” an actor. Often they get cast because they do a certain thing well — and then become typed for that one “side.” For years, Yolanda Franklin has done quality work in supporting roles. To their credit, OnStage Playhouse gave her the lead for The Sugar Witch, the mystical Annabelle, and Franklin unleashes a fully dimensional, engaging, and believable human being.
Nathan Sanders’s Gothic comedy-drama’s a good choice for Halloween. It’s set in Florida, on the edge of Buster’s Swamp, which has “snakes and gators and lots worse things” — like flying bobcats and possibly ghosts in the Beans’ rundown house. Sisser, a very large woman eating herself to death on the porch, points out these terrors. But when Lurlene, her pet palmetto bug, dies, Sisser — well, let’s say she has an axe to grind.
The script’s eerie, jolting, and funny. It also has lulls where the playwright settles for lengthy explanations. The OnStage Production has excesses as well. It turns out this is Rob Conway’s first directing assignment. Some actors scream too loud (too early and often, giving them no place to go); others could pick up the pace verbally. That said, Conway’s work has impressive plusses, especially for a first-timer.
The production has a terrific set (ancient weathered wood, sunset-streaked sky) and costumes. And Holly Stephenson’s Sisser is truly creepy. She never once hypes the part. The less she does, in fact, the creepier Sisser becomes.
Franklin mesmerizes throughout. Annabelle’s the last of the Sugar Witches. Part shaman, part battered being, she must stop the family’s curse. Whether playing impish practical jokes, recalling unthinkable horrors, or suggesting flickers of kindness Annabelle’s unable to repress, Franklin shows that the play’s real monsters aren’t in the swamp or screeching overhead. ■
The Gospel at Colonus, adaptation by Lee Breuer, music composed and arranged by Bob Telson
Ira Aldridge Players, Educational Cultural Complex, 4343 Oceanview Boulevard, Mountain View
Directed by Calvin Manson; cast: Claude E. Cole, Jr., Marion George, Faatima Harley, Aaron Holland, Robin Logan, Roosevelt Carter, Grandison Phelps III, Kalif Price, Larry Thompson, Eddie Baltrip; set, lights, and sound, Calvin Manson; costumes, Candace Davis; music director, Stephen Gooden
Playing through November 4; Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 3:00 p.m. 619-887-9260
The Sugar Witch, by Nathan Sanders
OnStage Playhouse, 291 Third Avenue, Chula Vista
Directed by Rob Conway; cast: Yolanda Franklin, Holly Stephenson, Anya Tuerk, Tony Bejerano, Ryan Casselman, Nick Young; scenic design, Bruce Wilde; costumes, Tony Bejerano; lighting, Chad Oakley; sound, Steve Murdock
Playing through November 3; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-422-7787