"Nous sommes Oedipus" Theater Review: “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)” by Sam Shepard
By Jessica Slote
The setting is a modern slaughterhouse—a room of white tile—walls, ceiling, and floor. A man, his overalls stained with blood, is mopping up blood on the floor, his boots sticky with the stuff.
He speaks:“Was this the place you dropped me off? Could’ve been. Draped in mystery and confusion. The secret let out long ago. Maybe that was it. Full of fear as you were. Trembling—Running – Hauling me across your back. Flapping like an extra skin. You think I’d forget? Your breath, panting like a bull calf born. Day and night. Leaves and wind. Left for dead. Hanging from an olive tree. A baby human. Left for dead. Ripped by hawks and eagles. Remnants. Ribbons of pink. Strings- Small traces. A king! The story begins its curse right here. Begins to crawl. Naked traces – All”
So begins Sam Shepard’s “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations),” an exploration of the themes coming down to us from Sophocles’ Oedipus: “destiny, fate, murder, exploitation, origins” as Shepard writes. He splices a contemporary story—a murder on a desert highway in his beloved American West—with the ancient story—a son who kills his father on an ancient crossroad, fulfilling a prophecy.
In this play, time is “out of joint.” The scenes jump back and forth from the ancients to the moderns. Actors play multiple characters in the then as well as the now. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear, is this then or now? In the end, it begins to feel as if the ancients speak through the moderns. The modern story is the vehicle for the ancient one. Or vice versa. Either way, there is more than a particle of dread in confronting the truth of this mystery.
What happened out there on that highway, that ancient crossroad?
Shepard invents many characters: a western-drawling highway policeman; a zealous forensic detective who interprets the traces and signs and attempt to reconstruct the story of the highway slaughter; a mobster who confesses to a crime he committed long ago, when he left his infant son to die on the highway to avoid a prophecy told before the child’s birth (also Laius, the King); an old man, wheelchair-bound, obsessed with the newspaper account of the unsolved crime on the highway, and who, from the depths of his memory, feels somehow implicated in it; Uncle Del (the Oracle at Delphi) who washes and hangs on a clothesline the bitter harvest of bloody entrails; the Maniac Of the Outskirts who condemns a society that always blames the outsider.
On the female side, Shepard gives us: Jocasta, Queen of Thebes, fiercely protective of her high status and contemptuous of the rabble; Jocelyn, a woman married to a violent man who raped and killed her babysitter; Annalee, a resigned woman—the wife of the man in the wheelchair—who reluctantly takes her husband to the scene of the crime.
The different stories, ancient and modern, merge and we watch with dread, as the characters are drawn to self-knowledge—like iron filings to a magnet. And though, from the beginning, we know the outcome of the Oedipus story, the suspense is heavy. The dread we feel at watching a man slowly come to understand the truth about the crime he committed is equal to the dread we feel at the crime itself.
What’s the point of tragedy—on the stage?
Annalee/Antigone confronts the audience directly with these questions: “Why waste my time? Why waste yours? What’s it for? Catharsis? Purging? Metaphor?”
Does the public experience a powerful catharsis with this play? Not really. The play perhaps does justice in this respect to our contemporary condition. We are not purged of our dread about “what happened.” Instead, with the characters, we continue to circle the event, going back to it again and again with additional information, trying to figure out what happened.
Perhaps we cannot experience any real catharsis because we are still “going round and round,” as Annalee says, tracking the traces like the forensic detective, reading the entrails like the media spin-maisters; trying to remember exactly what happened like the old man in the wheelchair; going over and over and over it all again and again in our scattered minds.
What’s the point of tragedy—in the world?
Something has happened here, in this slaughterhouse out on the highway: from Abu Graib to the gulag of CIA torture cells to all the torture cells of the world’s regimes; from the long colonial 19th century nightmare of oppression to the aftermath of a 20th century of devastating wars; from the capitalist “victory” of the consumerist “free market system” to the terrorist attacks in Paris this week on the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo—something happened here.
Until this country and its ruling class take a good hard look at itself in the mirror (as Jocasta forces Oedipus to do)—the catharsis of our realization lies further down the road. Reports now surface in our press. Military actions alone will not defeat terrorist forces; we have failed to address the motivation behind these forces. Look in the mirror, America, and see your own role in this horrific cycle of murder and revenge. The longer we take to face the truth, the more devastating the consequences.
Shepard takes his title from a line from Sophocles’ play: “If the killer can feel a particle of dread, your curse will bring him out of his hiding.”
Stephen Rea turns in a bravura performance as Oedipus/Otto. Strong performances from the entire cast of the Field Day Theater Company of Derry, Northern Ireland, who perform multiple roles.
Two musicians (cello and debro slide guitar) observe the action from above—alternately accompanying and commenting on the scenes—from a tile alcove of the slaughterhouse set.
Director Nancy Meckler sets the scenes in motion like a CSI script spinning off the page and into the mess of real life.
It satisfied my jones for some good theater once in a while.
Stephen Rea as Oedipus
“A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)” by Sam Shepard was performed at The Pershing Square
Signature Center, 480 West 42nd St., November 11, 2014 thru January 4, 2015.