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STAGE REVIEW

Oedipus rocks

The Greek tragedy takes a sharp, political turn

CAMBRIDGE -- The American Repertory Theatre's Oedipus is not your father's jealous boy bursting out of the Freudian crib to claim his place both in the maternal bed and as head of the household.

Director Robert Woodruff has turned the Oedipus complex on its head, giving us a complex "Oedipus" that smartly guides the Sophocles drama into political waters. Without ever beating the audience over the head with Sophoclean relevance, Woodruff and the design team create a barren, almost black-and-white land where a body hangs above the stage on a hook -- simultaneously recalling the barbarous suspension of corpses in Iraq and the bloodlust that greets fallen, discredited leaders like Mussolini.

We all know that a similar fate awaits Oedipus, whose obsession with getting the right answers to his questions spells disaster for Thebes and for him.

If that, together with an absolutist belief in his own values, reminds you of another world leader who assumed his father's place on the throne, far be it from me to dissuade you. On the other hand, Woodruff's world -- like most ART landscapes -- is not site specific. It could be any country where jousting for political power results in the spilling of blood. In other words, it could be any country.

More impressive than the landscape is the soundscape. Evan Ziporyn -- a member of the avant-garde ensemble Bang on a Can All-Stars and the head of music and theater arts at MIT -- has created a dramatic score that helps turn the Greek chorus into something out of "Sweeney Todd" while injecting mournful music that keens between classical Western and Eastern dirges.

And if you think miking has no place in theater, David Remedios's warm but ominous sound design will change your mind. The singing by the ensemble and the playing by the four onstage musicians, who have worked with Ziporyn before, make the rousing mix sound seamless.

Stephen Berg's and Diskin Clay's translation, meanwhile, maintains Sophoclean intent while creating its own sense of ancient times.

Speaking of ancient, the actors and the chorus frequently address us in ancient Greek (with surtitles), effecting a chilling sense of menace and doom. As Jocasta -- Oedipus's mother and wife, played by the wondrous Stephanie Roth-Haberle -- inches off the stage, repeating the word "dustehne," the word "wretched" is projected overhead. It is a great dramatic moment, one of many for Roth-Haberle, whose white-faced Jocasta is part Lady Macbeth, part Eva Peron, in her beautiful gown and shoes, hoping against hope she's found Mr. Right.

(Roth-Haberle also plays Jocasta's frightened servant at the end. I could watch this actress do all the roles in a bad Neil Simon play and be happy, but the doubling here is confusing and undercuts Jocasta's tragedy.)

John Campion in the title role hardly looks old enough to be her son, but since Woodruff is more interested in "The Wretched of the Earth" than "Totem and Taboo," it hardly matters. Campion's rages at not getting his way summon up dictators from every time and place.

Thomas Derrah's acting and singing as Chorus Leader stunningly capture how the populace of Thebes yearns for strong leaders, particularly in a time of "plague," and spits on them when triumphalism turns into disaster. Woodruff has imported a strong multiethnic assortment of actors and singers for the rest of the cast.

"Oedipus" is not the visual spectacle that Woodruff usually provides; the relative bareness makes you wonder if at some level he isn't already thinking in terms of the smaller stage the company will have for its second space next year. There is a remoteness to staging something this stark at the Loeb. Then again, with the characters retreating to the side of the stage and Roth-Haberle playing the double role, it's clear that Woodruff is purposefully preventing us from getting carried away with a too-easy emotionalism.

This hardly means that he and the translators are overly contemporary. I don't know that I've seen the Greek concern with hubris so clearly demonstrated.

Woodruff, Ziporyn, and the cast and crew have shaped a 90-minute tragedy that goes beyond histrionics. That doesn't make it any less dramatic: This "Oedipus" is the essence of great drama.

Ed Siegel can be reached at siegel@globe.com.

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