Oedipus Complex

WHEN Through 6/3: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 2 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $20-$68

INFO 312-443-3800


WHEN Through 5/27: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 2 and 5 PM

WHERE Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis

PRICE $12-$15, two for one Thu and 5 PM Sun

INFO 312-409-4778

The myth of Oedipus “seizes on a compulsion which everyone recognizes because he has felt traces of it in himself,” wrote Sigmund Freud in an 1897 letter describing his own self-analysis. While some of Freud’s pioneering psychological theories are still fiercely debated, there’s no denying the brilliance of his insight into the mythology and drama of the classical Greeks. In Freud’s time, the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, and their peers were largely the domain of preservationists, but Freud’s argument that the ancient texts spoke to primal, often suppressed human urges inspired the modernists to take imaginative approaches to the material. Among these artists was imagist poet Hilda Doolittle, a patient of Freud’s in 1933 and 1934.

The Goodman Theatre’s riveting Oedipus Complex and a fine storefront revival of Doolittle’s neglected adaptation of Euripides’ Ion both focus on the need to confront the conflicted relationship with one’s parents and one’s god–the people who gave us life and the force that guides destiny and death. The heroes of these plays seek to know themselves by probing the disturbing facts of their parentage and facing the unconscious feelings those facts stir. These two productions also bring fresh energy to the ancient legends.

Adapted and directed by Frank Galati, Oedipus Complex melds Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex with excerpts from Freud’s writings–a concept that might sound precious but that plays out exquisitely onstage. The evening begins with Freud in a lecture hall in fin de siecle Vienna, discussing his theory that we “direct our first sexual impulse toward our mother and . . . our first murderous wish toward our father.” Clad in a black frock coat and smoking a cigar, he speaks to an audience of 14 fellow scholars and scientists–all male, of course. As Freud’s lecture is transformed into a performance of Sophocles’ tragedy, the men become citizens of prehistoric Thebes; Freud himself plays a priest of Zeus, pleading with King Oedipus to save the city from the plagues destroying it. Oedipus’ inquiry into the crime that prompted Apollo’s curse on the city leads to the realization that he’s the criminal: he’s unknowingly slain his father, Laius, and wed his mother, Jocasta. Ironically, by marrying Jocasta, Oedipus has ascended to Laius’ throne, which would have been his birthright if his mother hadn’t abandoned him as an infant, leaving him in the wild to be killed by animals so he could never fulfill his prophesied fate of patricide and incest.

Galati underscores not only the autobiographical roots of Freud’s groundbreaking theories but the psychological underpinnings of Sophocles’ play. On occasion Freud steps out of the action to recount his own sexual dreams about his mother and his anger at his father, a Jew, for not standing up to a Christian bully.

In keeping with the tradition of classical Greek theater, this production involves little onstage action. People sometimes physically interact–for example, Oedipus reacts angrily to the words of the blind, lame prophet Teiresias, wrestling with the old man in his wheelchair. But the power of Oedipus Complex lies in its storytelling. As the characters recount the events that expose Oedipus’ secret sin–often in extended passages of choral speaking–their richly textured, beautifully blended voices take on the incantatory power of a religious ritual. (Kudos to vocal coach Linda Gates.) The rhythmically charged text is delivered with thrilling urgency by a first-rate cast led by Nick Sandys as Freud, Ben Viccellio as Oedipus, Roderick Peeples as his uncle (and successor) Kreon, Jeffrey Baumgartner as Teiresias, and Patrick Clear and Bradley Armacost as two shepherds who reveal the anguishing facts of Oedipus’ history. James Schuette’s sleek, austere set–black risers on a checkerboard stage–creates a somber dreamscape for the haunting tale.

Ion–completed by Doolittle during her five-month analysis by Freud–also rests on the idea of an infant being abandoned by its mother, then surviving to confront her as an adult. Kreousa, queen of Athens, has been seduced by the god Apollo and bears his son, Ion. Knowing nothing of his lineage, he’s raised by priestesses of Apollo at Delphi and eventually becomes the guardian of the shrine, home of the famous oracle. After some years Kreousa and her husband, Xouthos, who are childless, come to Delphi hoping the god will help them. Apollo gives them Ion but lies and says that he’s Xouthos’ biological child, not Kreousa’s. Jealous and bitter because she thinks the boy isn’t hers, Kreousa attempts to have Ion murdered, and Ion’s attraction to her turns to enmity. But instead of a tragic matricide or infanticide, Euripides delivers a seemingly tacked-on happy ending that’s long perplexed scholars: was the playwright trying to excuse Apollo’s deception or criticize the cruelty of the god and his oracle?

Like her contemporaries Gertrude Stein and Virginia Woolf, Doolittle–who used the gender-neutral pen name “H.D.”–was acutely aware of writing “both within and against a patriarchal literary tradition that had marginalized their work,” notes Carol Camper in her introduction to the New Directions edition of Ion. The most powerful element in Doolittle’s version is Kreousa’s fury at Apollo for cheating her of her maternal rights. Doolittle emphasizes the play’s mysticism and its rich natural imagery. Her rendition of Euripides’ verse lives up to the praise heaped on her early work by her sometime lover, Ezra Pound, in a letter to Poetry magazine editor Harriet Monroe: “Objective–no slither–direct–no excess of adjectives, etc. No metaphors that won’t permit examination.–It’s straight talk–straight as the Greek!”

Presented on a tiny budget in a tiny space, this bare-bones production doesn’t begin to rival the technical proficiency of the Goodman’s elegant Oedipus Complex. But Caffeine Theatre’s choice of this intriguing rarity suggests a high level of intelligence and ambition. And director Jennifer Shook’s young ensemble does good work, blending spare formality and emotional intensity. Alison Dornheggen and Evan Sierminski are particularly strong as Kreousa and Ion once their conflict heats up, and Dornheggen’s long tirade against the god who loved and cheated her is compelling. Like Oedipus Complex, Ion affirms the power of the well-spoken text to focus an audience’s attention inward, where we can connect with our deepest thoughts and feelings–the riddle of existence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Oedipus Complex, Ion photos/Liz Lauren (Oedipus).