A stark marvel greets the eyes when you enter the house for Court Theatre’s new production of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex.” White-on-white, all slick tiles and steps, recessing back into a giant mail slot of a mouth, the set (designed by John Culbert) looks straight out of the artist M. C. Escher’s impossible architecture, riven with a crack that runs the depth of the stage, from which shines forth a bright white light. Players step nimbly over it, except when they wade right into this obstacle, which makes the threat of an unnavigable depth ever-present. The dark house cradling the bright palace is the other half of Thebes. Through action and address, we become its people. “My children, why have you come here?” asks Oedipus (Kelvin Roston, Jr.), magnificent in his wine-dark robes.
The children of Oedipus are cursed; the people of Thebes afflicted with famine and plague. An oracle describes a “pollution” that must be expunged for the people to survive: the murderer of Laius, who was king before Oedipus. Even if you think you know the plot, the ur-crime fiction and psychological thriller, translated by Nicholas Rudall and directed by Charles Newell, retains its shattering impact as long as the debate between fate and free will remains a central question of our existence, and as long as the desire to know and the pain of knowledge remain at odds. Enacted in just seventy-five minutes, Court’s production renders the ancient tragedy with stunning visual impact.
Perhaps the most contemporary choice—and the most primitive—is the replacement of choral odes with movement (designed by Erin Kilmurray), which transforms unison speeches into the pounding of a chest that beats as one, a body that senses together. Roston is a willful Oedipus who makes his blinding an act of rebellion; Kate Collins an imposing and maternal Jocasta; Christopher Donahue a sardonic (which makes sense when you think about it) Teiresias. Aeriel Williams’ waifish Antigone gives an anticipatory hint of the work to come at Court a year hence. Costumes by Jacqueline Firkins complete the picture of a condition that is contemporary and also timeless. (Irene Hsiao)
Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, (773)753-4472, courttheatre.org, $28.50-$84. Through December 8.