A poke in the eye with a sharp stick

The Guthrie’s “Oedipus” discovers the human condition hasn’t changed too much

by Katrina Wilber

Tiresias, the blind prophet, warns Oedipus with a curt “It is a curse to know too much.”

But humans have always hungered for knowledge, always yearned to know more. We can’t leave well enough alone and be content with what we already know. We search for the truth, even if it comes with a price.

Perhaps the best example of this dangerous quest is Oedipus, a man who fulfills a prophecy by murdering his father and marrying his mother. Faced with this horrific knowledge, his mother/wife hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes as punishment.

The Guthrie Theater’s production of “Oedipus” is a politically charged adaptation by Ellen McLaughlin with Peter Macon in the title role. Macon is arresting from the moment he enters in all of his royal glory until he’s led, blind and bleeding, into exile at the end.

Even with a story this well-known, the theater’s production still elicits laughter and tears from the audience. The style of McLaughlin’s marvelous script seems akin to what the Greeks of Sophocles’ time must have heard, and the lines have a wondrous flow to them.

Isabell Monk O’Connor is a regal, sorrowful Jocasta. Oedipus’ mother/wife discovers the terrible conclusion long before Oedipus does, but even her most earnest pleadings are in vain. O’Connor’s repressed anger in a monologue is gut-wrenching.

The Guthrie Theater’s famous thrust stage seats the audience on three sides. This could end up a directorial disaster, but the cast moves smoothly around the stage and never ignores a section of the audience.

The six-person chorus, dressed as if each member is on the way to the office, sings as well as speaks, and the beautiful harmonies are well-balanced. Two musicians, one on percussion and one on reeds, add the final touches to the production.

But back again to our tragic lead – it’s hard to call him a tragic hero, unless he’s a hero for carrying out the sentence he laid on the king’s previously unknown murderer.

Oedipus risks everything for knowledge. He risks losing his honor, his position and his life. His rash decisions and stubborn disposition damn him to a life of agony and shame; a life condemned by too much knowledge.

He is by his own fault transformed from a worshipped, adored king into a wretched and despised man. The incredible intelligence is gone; he’s nothing but an empty shell.

He took a gamble, and he lost everything in the search for what he shouldn’t have fought for.

Years before the truth was told, in a futile attempt to deter Oedipus off this path of self-destruction, the Oracle told him, “If the gods won’t tell you, then it’s not for you to know.”

If only he had listened.