Monday, September 11, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "Live Where You Can" (on Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's The Gospel at Colonus)

live where you can

by Douglas Messerli


Lee Breuer (libretto and adaptation), Bob Telson (music, with lyrics by Breuer), Mark J. P. Hood and Charles Newell (directors) The Gospel at Colonus / The Getty Villa, September 6, 2023


Whereas New York’s Wooster Group generally perform classical or lesser-known plays, exploring them with new acting techniques or introducing contemporary technical visual and audio developments, New York’s Mabou Mines, especially the works of the late Lee Breuer, imposed utterly different frameworks upon classical theater, and in so doing, not so much altered them as permitted the echoes of our time to reverberate off of the older work and vice versa.

     One can observe the Mabou Mines approach best in their Mabou Mines Lear (1990), their redo of Brecht in In The Jungle of Cities (1991), Peter and Wendy (1996), Mabou Mines Dollhouse (2003), and particularly in Breuer and Bob Tolson’s early adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, The Gospel at Colonus, revived the other night in The Getty Villa’s noted annual series of Greek and Roman theater.

     The Gospel at Colonus first opened in 1983 at The Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Next Wave Festival, and was presented the following year at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage. It was revived again in 1987, this time in Atlanta, with Morgan Freeman playing the role of The Messenger, a sort of voice for Oedipus when “he” spoke or could not fully enact the role played en masse by The Blind Boys of Alabama. That production, with Freeman, the Five Blind Boys, Sam Butler, Jr. as The Singer, and The Institutional Radio Choir of Brooklyn was revived in 1988 on Broadway, with Breuer directing, for which he received a Tony nomination. 

      There was an earlier production, in December 1985 with basically the same cast, which my husband Howard N. Fox and I saw at the then Doolittle Theater on Vine Street in Hollywood (now the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre).

     The Getty production I saw on September 6 (it runs Thursdays-Saturdays through September 30th) was directed by Mark J.P. Hood and Charles Newell, and starred Kelvin Roston, Jr. as Oedipus, Ariana Burks as Ismene, Aeriel Williams as Antigone, Kai A. Ealy as Polyneices, Jason Huysman as Creon, Mark Spates Smith as Theseus, and most of the original chorus—including Juwon Tyrel Perry as The Friend, Jessica Brooke Seals as the Evangelist, and Shari Addison, Eric A. Lewis, Cherise Thomas, Jerica Excu, Shantina Lynet, Isaac Ry, and Ewa Ruwé—of Chicago’s Court Theatre Production of May of this year.

      I have always found the centerpiece of Sophocles’ great Theban plays (actually the last to be written) as the most difficult to watch. Basically, nothing happens except the various reactions of the men of Colonus who want Oedipus to leave for fear he may doom them as well. Most of the time is spent in philosophical ruminations of Oedipus’ now spent guilt for his terrible crimes, his justification for his innocence, and his painful renunciation of his two sons, Creon and Polyneices who are fighting to take over their father’s former kingdom. The biggest event in this work is the death of Oedipus, but even that happens offstage in a place where no one knows, and is accompanied with a series of lamentations by his daughters, Antigone and Iseme. It’s not, as the Getty introducer of this production reminded us, a very happy or even eventful play.

     But by telling the story through the voices of a Pentecostal sermon, prayers, and songs, Breuer and Tolson are able to completely transform the work as the engaging chorus, in the matter of the black gospel music, tell the tale, repeat it, question it, and take joy in repeating it again as they share it openly with the audience, often turning their glorious Greek-like choral repetitions into almost comic refrains, as if to say “Did you hear what he said?” before repeating it again.

Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography 2023

   Gospel music is not simply about glorifying and praising God and the sermon being preached, but is purposely inclusive, demanding if not an actual sharing of the songs, at least dance and hand-clapping from the congregation, in this case the theater audience.

     As Telson and Breuer, through the chorus, retell the entire Greek tragedy, they render it into a Christian tale of sin, punishment, regret, and transformation, each part of almost equal importance. The tragedy becomes instead a Christian parable in which the chorus serves as the traditional Greek chorus while the audience, perhaps more in line with the original Greek audiences, are encouraged to utter their shock, horror, disdain, and most importantly, their sorrow and love for the characters put under analysis. The New York Times critic Mel Gussow, reviewing an early production, was amazed at “how organically Oedipus…fit within the framework of a gospel musical. …The evening has the shape of a church service.”

     And if the standing-room-only audience with whom I saw the play the other night is any indication, the work has once again achieved its full goals, as members the normally polite Getty audiences, rhythmically clapped, occasionally spoke out in whoops of joyful delight, laughed, and generally went along with the participatory black church-going experience.

Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography 2023

     Although none of the songs are, in themselves, particularly memorable, important pieces such as "Stop; Do Not Go On!"—which always calls up to my mind Diana Ross’ and the Supremes 1965 hit, “Stop! In the Name of Love”—which in the original was spoken by the elderly men of Colonus, but here is sung by the female-dominated chorus that might as well be a version of the Supremes.

     And emotionally moving numbers such as "How Shall I See You Through My Tears?" and "Numberless Are The World's Wonders" are, among others, pure show-stoppers.

     “Lift Him Up” and “Now Let the Weeping Cease” are meant to, and fully succeed in sending the audience off with huge smiles of their faces, as happened the other evening when the final applause appeared that it might never end, and the audience, unlike almost any other I’ve been with for a long while, seemed in no hurry to leave.

Photo by Craig Schwartz Photography 2023

     This seminal work is almost impossible to dislike. But it does, I believe, show some vague signs of wear. The remarkable energy got up by cast and audience together seems, at moments, to be more manufactured these days than genuine. And I would guess few in the audience really had a transcendent perception regarding Oedipus’ Christian redemption. The chorus members reached down deep into the souls to sing out resplendently, but I’m doubtful if whether or not they really found empathy with the true horror of guilt that fate had handed Oedipus, doomed to play out actions, as he himself argues, foretold even before he was born: to kill a father, marry a mother, and bear beloved children that are also his brothers and sisters, the males of whom in the end are worried more about his grave to help establish their princely rights than because they feel any love for their doomed father/brother.

     In this version, the tragedy is a wonderful excuse to get together and tentatively explore how human sorrow can become a joy through communal belief, which is perhaps what theater has always been about. So why not clap along, let loose with a whoop of joy, and even join in with the chorus now and then to share the magic of such a good performance. As the first number of this show argues, “Live Where You Can.”


Los Angeles, September 11, 2023

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