Oedipus and The Critic
At the Eliot Arena Theatre
The theater season at Harvard could scarcely have had a more satisfactory beginning than with the Eliot Drama Group presentation of the Yeats' adaptation of Oedipus Rex and Sheridan's The Critic. Their Critic is charming and imaginative, and their Oedipus is nothing less than superb.
Yeat's version of the Greek tragedy offers its difficulties--the longer speeches include a number of passages obviously difficult to enunciate clearly--but it is still admirably suited for a modern audience because it stresses the excitement which the play contains. The director, D.J. Sullivan, understands this fact and has recreated Oedipus as a truly gripping piece of theater. Furthermore he and Harold Scott, who portrays the King, also understand the subtle rhythms of the tragedy, for in their hands the play rises through a beautifully timed series of climaxes to the point where Oedipus' anguished scream announces that he at last knows his true situation. Sullivan, happily renouncing any sort of theatrical trickery, kept a tight control over all his performers to make sure that they fit exactly into the shape of the tragedy.
But no director can present a satisfactory Oedipus without a very talented actor in the title role, and in Scott he found one who fits this description. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Harold Scott's performance. All the shadings of the King are here: the young and arrogant saviour of Thebes, the impatient investigator into his own past, and the chastened hero, who submits in a most touching scene, to the will of the new King, Creon.
Just as impressive, in her own way, is the Jocasta of Lisa Rosenfarb. She projects the dignity of the queen of Thebes, and at the same time retains the tenderness of a loving wife. And to watch the horror of realization steal into her eyes as she recognizes that Oedipus is her own son is to witness a consumate piece of acting. A similar attention to the details of a performance can be found in Philip McCopy's portrayal of Tiresias, the blind prophet. In his single but long scene, the man personifies all the calm certaintly of truth.
The other actors too are admirable, particularly Peter Hugens as the First Messenger, Marc Brugnoni as a Herdsman, and Thomas Teal as the leader of the chorus. D.J. Sullivan also deserves special mention for his more than creditable performance as Creon, a role which he took over at practically the last moment.
Sheridan's The Critic, a mannered spoof of theater and society in the eighteenth century, is as different from Oedipus Rex as any play can be, but--partly perhaps because it is so dissimilar--it makes an attractive companion piece to the great tragedy. This play has aged more in its much shorter existence than the Greek drama, yet it still retains much life because many of the subjects of its barbs, including drama criticism and the press, are very much with us today.
Once again D. J. Sullivan is in line for praise, this time for his work as director and for his skillful performance in the starring role. As director, he is responsible for inventing a great deal of imaginative and humorous stage business, even though at the end of the piece things become a little chaotic. As star, in the role of a vainglorious playwright named Puff, he reveals a sure sense of comedy. He is particularly amusing in a long, aria-like speech that dissects the advertising techniques of the day with a surety that would make the denizens of Madison Avenue cringe.
The Critic is a somewhat shapeless play, made up of two parts. The first, little more than a series of character sketches, is laid in the home of one Dangle, portrayed ably but with a faintly incongruous accent by James Matisoff. Here, in addition to Puff, another aspiring author named Fret, played by Marc Brugnoni, and a gentleman-about-town called Sneer, portrayed by Robert Jordan, needle each other with polished skill. But Thomas Teal, as a horse-faced and impassive servant, all but steals the scene as the helps his master ceremoniously slip on a corset.
But the comedy does not reach its funniest part until the second scene, a rehearsal of Puff's masterpiece. That play, a wonderful and absurd specimen of eighteenth century tragedy at its tearful best, gives a seemingly endless series of players a chance to rant and spout amusingly grand poetry. All the cast of the play within a play cannot be mentioned, though most of them deserve to be. Particularly outstanding are Nancy Curtis, who shines as the heroine, Eric Martin, as her father, Thomas Eldridge, in the part of Lord Hatton, and John Hallowell, as Leicester.
All these actors, and for that matter also Peter Chermayeff, who designed the sets, and Anne Hollander, who contributed the costumes, set a very high standard with their work. The next production of the season will have to aim high to come within the range of this one.