The play may have been performed for thousands of years. However, the ambitious, innovative version of “Oedipus,” Sophocles’ ancient tragedy, presented by Deaf West Theatre at the Getty Villa offered a fresh take on the Greek classic.
This production by the Tony Award-winning Deaf West Theatre is bilingual. Adapted and directed by Jenny Koons, the story is presented in English and American Sign Language. The physical communication and choreographed gestures express passion and amplify the characters’ emotions. While Deaf West Theatre’s “Oedipus” is not the amazing triumph that its “Spring Awakening” (reviewed here May 2015) was. The ambitious enterprise, talented team and venue make for a worthwhile evening.
Setting Adds to Ambiance
After all, where better to see classic Greek plays than the Getty Villa, a monument to ancient Greek and Roman life? The museum houses Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. On a Southern California bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the facility was modeled after Villa dei Papiri, a Roman country house outside Herculaneum that was buried under ash from the 79 A.D. Vesuvius eruption that also destroyed Pompeii.
Theater was an important part of ancient Greek life, so the Getty Villa includes an outdoor amphitheater. The Getty Villa has featured an annual outdoor theater production each year on late summer evenings since 2006 (except 2020 when the pandemic closed everything).
The original version of “Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus the King)” is a classic by Sophocles of Colonus (c. 496 – c. 406 BCE). He was one of the most famous playwrights of all time. Only 7 of his estimated 120 plays survive, but they are still performed worldwide. Appropriately, the Getty Villa has featured other adaptations of his works in the outdoor amphitheater.
The choice of this year’s production is particularly timely. “Oedipus” takes place as the area in Greece emerges from a deadly plague. The citizens look to their leadership for help recovering, particularly King Oedipus, who is renowned as a paragon of problem-solvers. King Oedipus faces the ultimate problem to solve – the riddle of his own life story.
A Riddle of Genealogy
The play is partly a murder mystery, with strange twists. Creon is Queen Jocasta’s rich brother. When the play starts, he has just returned from the Oracle of Apollo. Creon relates the Oracle’s prophecy that finding Laius’s killer will help the city recover and tries to convince everyone of the need to find the murderer. Eventually, as the genealogical secrets are slowly revealed, Oedipus turns on Creon and suggests he is conspiring to make him look guilty.
Teiresias is a blind prophet, who knows the truth about the murder and Oedipus’s parentage. Teiresias acknowledges Oedipus’ skill in reading riddles, so she speaks in them. The prophet taunts Oedipus that “You know so little you will not learn these horrors from me.”
Oedipus asked Creon to find Laius’s killer. However, the King becomes furious when Teiresias claims Oedipus himself is the guilty party.
Ultimately, the King is confronted by both his legacy and his destiny. He learns his torturous tale involved slaying his father, previous King Laius, as well as marrying and bearing children with his mother, Jocasta. Of course, Oedipus did not know his parentage.
However, after publicizing the fate of whomever he finds killed Laius, he paints himself into a corner. Oedipus must pay the price for dismissing Teiresias’ words and the Oracle’s prophecy. While the plot is a bit over the top for most soap operas, the plot ultimately has Oedipus demonstrating the sacrificial nobility of assuming responsibility for deeds committed, even if done in ignorance.
Deaf West Theatre’s ambitious, fresh Getty Villa production of “Oedipus” presents challenges to actors who must capture the audience’s eyes and sign the dialog often while someone else nearby speaks it. It can be distracting, but the cast at the Getty Villa largely overcame it.
The “Oedipus” cast is led by Russell Harvard as the titular character. Hampered by a distracting crown that looks like a flimsy Halloween reject, Harvard is effective as the headstrong Oedipus. His face is expressive, and Harvard’s limited verbal dialog is effectual at conveying his anguish.
In this production, the blind oracle Tiresias is charmingly played by Ashlea Hayes, a deaf Black woman who also has failing eyesight. The actress is wonderfully engaging and mysterious. She’s accompanied on stage by Amelia Hensley as a palace servant who voices Tiresias’ visions.
As portrayed by Jon Wolfe Nelson, Creon looked like a wealthy stylish Pacific Palisades aristocrat. However, when the plot focuses on him, Nelson made everyone watch him.
The choreography woven in the play by Alexandria Wailes and Andrew Morrill is unique. It incorporates sign language, spoken language, and body language as methods of communication.
Deaf West Theatre presents this fresh, ambitious version of “Oedipus” on Thursdays through Saturdays until October 1, 2022, at the Getty Villa. Tickets and parking reservations are available from the J. Paul Getty Museum.
Written by Dyanne Weiss
Oedipus performance Sept. 7, 2022
Spectrum News: “In ‘Oedipus,’ Deaf West Theatre features Protactile ASL for first time”
Getty.edu: “A Murder Mystery Comes to the Getty Villa”
Photos by Craig Schwartz of (top) L-R, Russell Harvard as Oedipus/Jon Wolfe Nelson as Creon, and (inset) Ashlea Hayes as Tiresias/Amelia Hensley as Palace Servant, courtesy of the J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Villa.