'Oedipus' deftly mixes comedy, tragedy
"Oedipus at Palm Springs," the centerpiece of this year's Out on the Edge Festival, is appropriately right out there on the edge. It may be the saddest comedy you'll ever see.
Now, you may not normally say "Oedipus" and "comedy" in the same breath. But that's the genius of the Five Lesbian Brothers, the New York-based troupe that developed this play with the help of the festival's presenter, the Theater Offensive, and is now giving it a fully staged Boston production after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run. The Brothers have a gift for delivering pungent messages with a hilarious spin.
So "Oedipus at Palm Springs" begins, on Judy Staicer's desert-pastel set, as a fast and funny succession of mashed-up images and great jokes. The first thing we see, in silhouette, is three Greek-robed women surrounding a figure in a loincloth - ah, the Three Fates, but who's the half-naked guy?
No guy at all, as it happens, but the play's answer to Sophocles' blind prophet, Tiresias (himself not so clearly a guy, as you may recall). In this case it's Joni, the spooky, slightly kooky manager of a deluxe women-only resort in Palm Springs. As the lights come up, she does a funny, incongruous, and weirdly spiritual dance that's part Native American shaman, part aging LA club diva, part New Age poseur, and all a hilarious, prophetic distillation of the play's exquisite poise on the line between comedy and tragedy.
Then enter the two couples whose intertwined friendships and stories will carry the ancient Greek myth into our own time - except that, for a while, they're such freshly drawn, specific, and engaging characters that we forget they're also going to be archetypes. One couple is here to rekindle the spark in a long-term committed relationship; the other has come to celebrate a birthday and, maybe, take things to a new level.
Fran and Con have been together for years, but their partnership is feeling the strains of new parenthood, in ways that will feel familiar to anyone who's gone from lusting to sleep with a spouse to lusting for sleep, period. Their old friend Prin, meanwhile, is a successful businesswoman who's arranged this getaway for the birthday of her much younger girlfriend, Terri - and, she hopes, to help Terri move through mourning the death of her adoptive mom and decide if she wants to search for her birth mother.
Enough plot; you can probably do the math. But don't focus on it, because along the way to the inevitable dark twist is much lightness and enlightenment to revel in - not just a lot of zingy one-liners about commitment, gay life in America, parenthood, and growing older, but also a real sense of these four women (and their blind innkeeper/seer, with her vision quests and enigmatic aphorisms) as women, friends, and lovers.
Part of what's wonderful about "Oedipus at Palm Springs" is the way it takes the central relationship of the original, that between parent and child, and holds it up in a new light. Instead of Sophocles' profoundly masculine focus and approach on the son's tragedy, the Five Lesbian Brothers invite us to see the story from the mother's point of view - and, in doing so, to explore the complexities of what motherhood does to women, how it changes their relationships with others and with themselves.
What's wonderful is to see five spirited, appealing women revealing themselves, both emotionally and physically, as they explore these relationships onstage. For this production, original Brother Moe Angelos, who makes Prin a marvel of toughness and concealed vulnerability, is joined by four Boston actresses, billed as the "Ladies' Auxiliary": Karen "Mal" Malme, as a touchingly conflicted butch/maternal Fran; Brigid O'Connor, a warm but sex-starved Con; Vanessa Soto, a passionate and grieving Terri; and Linda Monchik, who keeps Joni just weird enough.
The onstage sex - and there's plenty - feels human and real. But what's really seductive about "Oedipus at Palm Springs" is the way it invites us to think about all the faces of love, not just the ones we see in bed. Like the original, this "Oedipus" cuts deep into the questions of who we ask ourselves to be, whom we allow ourselves to love, and who we become when all our identities collide.