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Actor Gord Rand, left, with Yanna McIntosh as Jocasta, plays Oedipus with an unnervingly loose, spontaneous physicality.

David Hou

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Oedipus Rex
Written by
Sophocles Translated by Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay
Directed by
Daniel Brooks
Actors
Gord Rand
Venue
Stratford Festival
City
Stratford, Ont.
Year
2015
Runs Until
Friday, September 18, 2015

Do you see what you've done? Do we see what we've done?

Taken on the micro or macro level, Oedipus Rex is a play that can shake an audience to the core – unsettling in its demonstration of just how blind we can be to the ways in which we destroy ourselves and our world.

Director Daniel Brooks's production at Stratford starring Gord Rand wrings the full emotional power from this ancient play – it left my seatmate and me a couple of Oedipus wrecks, anyway.

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"Why are you here?" Oedipus asks the audience directly at the start. "Why have you come to me?"

Good questions. You know the story, or at least the complex: Oedipus, the king of Thebes, has killed his father and married his mother. He doesn't understand that he has done this – though he has always feared it would happen. It was prophesied.

Oedipus's journey then is not too far off from ours: We're all here to move from knowing to really knowing – to understanding, to realization, to feeling the full weight of the truth. It's hard to put into words, but when it hits you, you know it.

There is a plague ravaging Thebes – and a priestess (Shannon Taylor), Oedipus's first visitor of the evening, angrily implores the king to do something about it. She's dressed all in red and wearing a face mask (a little Greek tragedy in-joke). There are also bottles of hand sanitizer by the entrance to the stage, which is covered by a giant sheet of protective plastic, keeping something out or in.

In this opening encounter, we find the seeds of Rand's performance as Oedipus. There's a loose, spontaneous physicality to his movements that is unnerving. He roams up and down restlessly – he's in a palace but also a prison, sparsely furnished with metal chairs and lit by floodlights in Camellia Koo's set design.

Rand's bearded, wiry Oedipus says the right things to the priestess – that no one cares about Thebes more than him, that no one suffers more when Thebes suffers, that he's determined to find the source of this sickness and root it out. But his tone is off: There's a cutting casualness to his speech, a hostility beneath his words. At the back of his mind, he already knows: He is the plague.

When the Teiresias (Nigel Bennett) arrives – in heels and earrings, navigating through the world by clicking his tongue for echolocation – Oedipus welcomes him with open arms until the blind prophet tells him the truth. The king seems particularly terrified of being weak or wrong, being seen as "stupid, untutored Oedipus" – he solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he rose to power, how could he be stupid? Rand spits out the word like a mouthful of tacks.

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Further proof comes that Oedipus is the poison that needs to be extracted to appease the Gods – but he muzzles the experts or declares that the issue needs more study. He mistakes denial for hope – as does his wife, Jocasta (Yanna McIntosh), who arrives to calm his fears and her own.

Rand's Oedipus is surrounded by strong performances – a brilliant, touching Christopher Morris as brother-in-law Kreon and a gleefully greasy Kevin Bundy as a money-seeking messenger.

But this really is the perfect match of play to director: Back in 2007, Brooks wrote a play called The Eco Show that was about a patriarch bemoaning the death of the planet, ignoring his own toxicity.

He's tailored this version of Oedipus Rex – translated by the American poet Stephen Berg and Duke University classicist Diskin Clay – to tackle climate change, but the seams never show and the production resonates beyond that issue.

As the citizens of the chorus pool their money to try to appease the powers up above, your thoughts may travel from ancient Greece to today's Greece. Costume designer Victoria Wallace has put the chorus all in suits – they look more like a board meeting, or the European Council. They take turns declaiming forcefully, but impotently, into a microphone, led by a woman with the bearing and the haircut of Angela Merkel (Deidre Gillard-Rowlings).

The problem, you gather, isn't the plague per se, but that the plague has started to affect them. A servant (Lally Cadeau in a powerful cameo) comes on near the end to make that point. She describes the off-stage carnage, but none of what's happening is really surprising to her – hunger and sickness and violence have always been a part of her world.

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They're a part of our world, too, which we know and yet don't really know. Stratford has gone to the unusual lengths of posting an advisory on its website about Oedipus Rex's climax: "This may make some audience members feel uncomfortable." Yes, indeed, but once the shaking ends there's a strange peace to be found amid the horror. A kind of hope, honest and painful.

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