Elli Papakonstantinou’s thought-provoking, entertaining  OEDIPUS at BAM

27/09/2019

United StatesUnited States Elli Papakonstantinou, OEDIPUS: Sex with Mum Was Blinding: ODC Ensemble with The Directors Company, BAM Fischer, Brooklyn, 25.9.2019. (RP)

Misha Piatigorsky © Stelios Papardelas

Production:

Director – Elli Papakonstantinou
Original Music – Tilemachos Moussas & Julia Kent
Lighting & Cinematic Environments – Stephanie Sherriff
Live Audio Development – Constantin Basica
Masks – Maritina Keleri & Chrysanthi Avloniti
Costumes – Jolene Richardson
Electroacoustic Environments – Hassan Estakhrian & Barbara Nerness
Scientific Advisor – Professor Manos Tsakiris

Cast:

MC & Piano – Misha Piatigorsky
Jocasta/Chorus – Nassia Gofa
Boy – Elias Husiak
Tiresias/Chorus – Anastasia Katsinavaki
Woman – Theodora Loukas
Oedipus/Chorus – Lito Messini
Researcher – Manos Tsakiris
Cello – Julia Kent

Exiting the theater, a young woman behind me gave voice to the thought that was running through my mind: ‘What happens if I start singing the final song on the subway?’ The catchy doo-wop tune was innocent enough, but the lyrics could prove problematic. Cheerfully singing ‘Sex with mom was blinding. Sex with mom was divine’ might raise an eyebrow or two, even on the Q Train from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

OEDIPUS: Sex with Mum Was Blinding was conceived, written and directed by Elli Papakonstantinou, a 2018-19 Fulbright Artist’s Award recipient, visiting scholar at Stanford University and recipient of a 2018-19 Music Theatre Now award. She bills OEDIPUS as an immersive opera that mixes traditional performance with cutting-edge technology and emerging neuroscience based upon Sophocles’s classic tragedy Oedipus Rex. New and radical it isn’t (for me it harks back to avant-garde work of the late 1970s and early 1980s, although the technology is certainly more sophisticated), but Papakonstantinou has created a thought-provoking theater work that proved to be pretty entertaining despite the grim subject matter.

She uses Sophocles’s story of patricide and incest to explore the tension as to whether a person’s fate is the result of predestined circumstances or is determined through choices and actions. Left-handedness, sexual preference and gender identity were tossed out to get the audience thinking, but Papakonstantinou struck a nerve when she challenged the American Dream that if a person works hard enough, he or she can attain their every desire. A great theory, but what if the cards are stacked against you from birth?

It isn’t surprising that the theme resonates in present-day America, and perhaps even more so in Greece which is still recovering from the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Granted, Oedipus’s plight is more tangled than most, but he was living the dream until he discovered that he had killed his dad and married his mom. To underscore his ticklish predicament, Tiresias pulled out a cell phone and asked Siri to define mother-fucker. Papakonstantinou isn’t shy about using explosive, some might say repulsive, language.

OEDIPUS lived up to its billing as a theatrical mash-up. In supervillain Joker guise, Misha Piatigorsky (great nephew of the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky) not only played the piano but at times conducted the ensemble and led the audience participation sessions. The riot scene where the audience shouted out rants went on far too long, but the earlier one where Manos Tsakiris – who played the Researcher and acted as a scientific advisor to the play – asked the audience to pull out their mobile devices and engage them in selfie mode proved revelatory. People became engrossed in examining their own images, expressing satisfaction when asked if they liked what they saw: a launch pad perhaps for Papakonstantinou to delve deep into the Narcissus myth.

Nassia Gofa was wonderful as Jocasta, Oedipus’s mother. She’s a fine tragedian who knows her way around a torch song. It was her voice singing that final little ditty, plucked straight out of Grease, that lingered in my mind after the curtain fell. Soprano Lito Messini was stoic and clarion-voiced as Oedipus, clearly identifying with the hero-cum-scapegoat for his people’s woes. Her voice, like all the others, was amplified to compete with the electric instruments, but its quality was readily apparent.

Piatigorsky put on quite a show at the piano, which included playing with his feet, but cellist Julia Kent was a mesmerizing figure on the crowded stage who played with intensity and commitment. She and Tilemachos Moussas, an Athens-based composer, wrote the original music for the show. The music, borrowing from jazz, minimalism and pop, was full of energy and color. I would hesitate to call OEDIPUS an opera, but as a piece of musical theatre it has its merits.

Elias Husiak, who cut a dashing figure on stage, seemed to channel the drama through the movements of his body. At times he was heroic and brash, but when things began to unravel for Oedipus, he became a bundle of nervous tics and convulsions. Off to the side of the stage, a research/therapist session took place in tandem with the telling of the myth. Manos Tsakiris’s Researcher managed to make an impact with earnest understatement in the high energy environment. Anastasia Katsinavaki’s Tiresias was a noble figure who got some of the pithiest lines in the entire show.

Even though the stage was full of actors, musicians and their instruments and bits of set, Papakonstantinou maintained a sense of structure by giving each their own space. Grainy videos of billowing clouds and riots managed the trick of providing cohesion without being distracting. The illuminated helmets worn by the chorus were pretty cool.

The program notes hinted at gender-reexamination as a topic, but in opera, casting a woman in the role of a young male hero is nothing new. One only has to read the mythical story of the blind prophet Tiresias, who was transformed into a woman for seven years, to realize that gender bending has been a topic for a long, long time. Papakonstantinou needs to up the ante a bit to make even a ripple in those waters in the era of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Jonathan Van Ness and the like. She is on far surer ground with her penetrating societal observations on human nature.

Rick Perdian

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