Oedipus Rex might be the only play in Western drama that doesn’t need a spoiler alert. Sophocles’ ancient tragedy makes a slow and inevitable political prophecy, forecasting how we’ll sow the seeds of our own destruction. Oedipus, the Theban king with the maimed foot, interrogates his city in order to find a murderer — only to realize (late, of course) that he’s the bad guy. Among other things, Sophocles may have penned the first detective story, complete with surprise twists at the end.
Sam Shepard’s somber new play, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), now at the Signature Theatre, presents twin versions of this narrative simultaneously. Actors from Field Day Theatre Company in Derry (the show’s co-producer) perform a classically inflected take in their Northern Irish accents — but, confusingly, in modern-looking dress. Meanwhile, American performers drawl in a present-day setting out in the Southwestern desert. With this juxtaposition, A Particle of Dread tries to relate the violent struggles in Northern Ireland to Sophocles’ troubled polis and our own homeland. But apart from the logic of co-producing, it’s hard to suss the dramatic significance of this collision of worlds.
For one thing, there are a number of murders to track in alternating scenes and little to link or contrast them. Uncle Del (Lloyd Hutchinson) tells the audience how a bandit ambushed the king long ago, unleashing a curse of cyclical violence on his city. In a pronouncement suggestive of the North’s Troubles, he declares that, “Until we uncover this vermin, we will continue to suffer our slow and painful disintegration.” And on a stretch of Highway 15 in the American desert, two cops investigate a heinous triple murder that gives fresh meaning to road rage. “Who the hell is he?” asks Officer Harrington (Jason Kolotouros), speaking of the maniacal killer. “That’s the whole question,” replies his partner. In yet another plot strand, Annalee (Judith Roddy, later Antigone) tells her father Otto (Stephen Rea, who doubles as Oedipus) how her boyfriend Jimmy’s in the slammer for killing their babysitter “with rage in the blood.”
The sparse lyricism of Shepard’s writing lurks but never emerges in Nancy Meckler’s lethally muddled production, a pauseless procession of inaccessible characters who talk at us without allowing us fully into their psychic spheres. Frank Conway’s ungainly set design poses another barrier: The oddly cramped, white-tiled room has a bloodstained floor, garments hanging center stage, and a recessed balcony for musicians. This neo-Beckettian setting would seem to evoke a place unmoored from time and circumstance, yet there’s little room for suggestion. Most of the scenes play so conventionally that they work against the set’s spatial abstraction: For instance, when the narratives intersect, classical Oedipus argues with the American police about how the hitchhikers met their demise. Disorientation, rather than some kind of universal value, results from this dramatic mash-up.
That’s a shame, because Rea holds the stage with a commanding tone and there’s some nice writing buried in here. If only the production would let us take it in. As Annalee demands in a reflective aside: “Catharsis? Purging? Metaphor? What’s in it for us?”