White Bird, our local purveyor & sponsor of all things awe-inspiring in dance world-wide, made no exception to the high-expectations we have for their productions last Thursday, May 10th, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, with their final offering of this season, the French/Brazilian “hip-hop” dance troupe, Compagnie Käfig. In fact, it would seem that White Bird saved one of its best and most exuberant for last — a performance to leave you awe-struck at the dancing skill and also put a very happy smile on your face.
So what meaning do these ancient heroes, gods and monsters have for us in our modern world — and not just the happy-go-lucky, hip, creative class urbane folk (or not so happy, as the case may be), but all strata of our society? Perhaps myths on fate might ring especially true to those whose socio-economic level leaves them often downtrodden and often invisible in our population, those feeling constantly stuck in no-win scenarios.
And what better myth or legend than that of Oedipus, the ultimate strutting, prideful hero thinking he can outdo his own fate, only to be brought low by it? In fact, a character so twisted he even had his own psychological complex named after him. And no theatre company could perhaps handle this better than our own local Miracle Theatre Group/Teatro Milagro, with their current offering of the playwright Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey.” With Alfaro’s magnificent dramaturgy, under the experienced and emotionally charged direction of classicist Elizabeth Huffman, Oedipus is updated to the California penal system and barrio, where this wounded warrior has this street name of “pies malos,” and has the pride to think he can rise above this culture’s beliefs in gods, oracles and omens to become an ese kingpin, and even a god himself, determining his own fate through gangland culture.
There’s a lot to recommend this production to theatre goers — it won two Tony’s in 2009 for its score, it won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and has Portland’s delightful Susannah Mars (of Mars On Life) in the lead role. Most of all, it deals frankly with a risky subject: a seemingly quintessential suburban American family unit’s struggle with a family member with multiple diagnoses of mental illness, and how far each family member goes down the rabbit hole of this very real affliction; and, as if that weren’t challenge enough, it does it in a musical, no less, without (mostly) every coming off glossy-slick, coy or too easy with its subject matter. That alone is quite the feat to endorse it (and probably what nabbed it that coveted Pulitzer).
There are some some quibbles I had with the play itself — technically, it’s more of an operetta than a musical (nearly everything, save a few brief, telling moments, is sung). Is it truly a rock musical? Eh… the bass, drums and guitar rock a bit, but it is more standard Broadway musical-sounding faire with some fuzz pedal than what the Rolling Stone quote would have you believe. Some devices in the play are a bit derivative. And a needlessly mawkish staging of the finale almost jarred me out of the good will of emotive realism (though sung) that had built up until that point. Almost.
But these are small quibbles and not reasons to avoid this production. Quite the contrary — Mars and the other cast members’ artistry, under John Kretzu’s skillful direction in a hard piece to pull off, make this a piece of not just a highly engrossing evening of theater and music, but one that can be truly cathartic for both those suffering from mental illness, and for the friends and family feeling entrapped by the on-going also. And throughout our world, who has not been touched in some way by this and wouldn’t find it necessary to at least to witness a public voice of this affliction? Just about everyone, as far as I know.