On a dark and minimally decorated stage, a group of Stanford undergrads rehearse some of the most iconic moments in classical theater. At the helm, show director, Matthew Moore, a Ph.D. candidate in drama draws from collaborative work he’s done with faculty and fellow students to produce his interpretation of the classic Greek tragedy Oedipus, the second production in the 2011 Stanford Summer Theater series.
The version of Oedipus opening on July 28th is Seneca’s, first translated to English by Ted Hughes for Peter Brooks’ 1968 production in London. “As far as I know, this is the first time that this specific version has ever been performed in this country,” says classics and drama professor Rush Rehm, who serves as the program’s artistic director.
Moore, describes his production as minimal and interactive, and describes Hughes’s translation of Oedipus’s emotional journey as having an imaginistic feel one might associate with poetry. “This is one of the darkest, most visceral adaptations of Oedipus,” says Moore.
Stanford Summer Theater, now in its 13th year, continues to give Stanford students the opportunity to work alongside scholars and professional actors in a uniquely collaborative environment.
Thirteen undergraduate students are taking part in this year’s summer program, all working full-time in various capacities. “About half of them are drama majors, while the rest come from a variety of disciplines, including history and computer science, and a few are undeclared” says Moore.
Four of these students – Leigh Marshall, Raine Hoover, Anneka Kumli, and Max Sosna-Spear – are performing in Oedipus, with Joel DuBray serving as stage manager and Anni Dauber designing the costumes. Tom Freeland, who teaches at the Center for Teaching and Learning and holds a Ph.D. in drama, plays Creon.
“This is a great way to get them involved in theater, allowing them to work with professionals in an organic and meaningful way,” says Rehm.
“The concept of performance and what it means to perform deeply intersects across all disciplines, because the concepts at work yield a greater understanding of the human psyche,” says Moore.
Someone training to be a physician, for example, would be able to apply the concepts and approaches used in theater to their bedside manner. “In a way, you’re playing a role in the life story of your patients,” Moore says.
Putting on the production has been a collaborative affair, says Moore. Everyone involved in Stanford Summer Theater has had the opportunity to watch and discuss not just their own productions, but also their peers’.
One academic relationship, with Al Duncan, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Classics, proved fundamental to Moore’s understanding of the play’s central female character.
“One question I’d been exploring with the cast was Jocasta,” he says. “We all know that Oedipus finds out the truth about his past and parentage during the revelation scene with the shepherd, but it’s less clear what Jocasta knows at that point.” In Sophocles’ play, there is no indication of at which point the queen realizes what has happened until she runs screaming into the palace.
“I discussed various interpretations with Al, and what to do about her placement in the scene,” Moore recalls. “And he showed me an image of a Sicilian vase depicting that scene.”
“Oedipus is standing there, with an expression of deep thought. But Jocasta is already turning away – she already knows,” he says. The woman that both mothered and married the title character is shown to understand the significance of the shepherd’s message before it has been uttered in full.
The Sicilian vase was created in the mid 330s BC, roughly 100 years after Sophocles’ version of Oedipus was first performed in Athens, says Duncan. “Veiling her cheek in grief or surprise, Jocasta has clearly lighted upon the truth of the incestuous situation, but the shock of the messenger’s revelation has paralyzed her,” he explains.
“The Sicilian vase and Seneca’s Oedipus both highlight the queen’s response, making her an intimate partner to the tragedy that bears Oedipus’s name.”
“It’s because of the support of the university and the intersection of the humanities departments that we get to produce these great plays and re-imagine them, as many of these historical pieces weren’t produced very much,” says Moore.
The emphasis on collaboration – facilitated by the program and the interdisciplinary interaction between humanities scholars – has allowed drama students the opportunity to collaborate with scholars in different fields, challenging them and in some cases providing new insight into their field.
“Because I did the graduate program in humanities, I came into contact with scholars in reading groups and discussions, and some relationships have lasted throughout my experience at Stanford,” says Moore.
This year’s summer program seeks to tackle the concept of memory as part of Stanford’s year-long Memory Play Festival. Rehm says that each play performed at the festival, and each film screened at its film screenings, has something unique to say about the concept of memory.
In line with the theme of the festival, both Moore and Rehm believe that Seneca’s version of Oedipus has something unique to say about memory, and that its story cuts to the heart of a timeless human condition.
“That this play has been reformatted and reproduced throughout our history and continues to resonate with humanity, says to me that the story of Oedipus is not just a literary artifact, but a ritual that society feels compelled to repeat,” says Moore.
Seneca’s version of the play was chosen over Sophocles’ original, Moore says, because it does not end with a moral lesson.
“In Sophocles’ version, the moral is that men should not try to defy fate. For Seneca, whether it was fate that brought about Oedipus’ fall, or something else entirely, remains a question,” Moore explains. “It opens up the question of free will in relation to destiny.”
“The play has a lot to do with our mistrust of our instincts and the direction we see our society heading in,” he says. “You think you’re living one life and that you have your principles in order, and then somehow the life you thought you knew gets turned around in an instant.”
In addition, Seneca’s play picks up on the strategies used in political life because of the societal context in which it was written. “In ancient Rome, society was structured around the individual and his or her responsibility to the state,” explains Moore, who views Oedipus and Jocasta as political figures in his production.
“The stability of the state and its maintenance were what was important,” says Moore. “So the play functions as, not necessarily a catharsis, but as a casting out of that which is inherently evil in society.”
Rehm, whom Moore has worked with on other stage productions as well as in the classroom, appears in the festival’s adaptation of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, which opened on July 7.
“The play is about what goes on between a married couple that remembers things differently,” he explains. “Their different understandings of past events become a battleground for what is happening in the present.”
The production, directed by drama lecturer Jeffrey Bihr, is notable for its double-casting of the roles of Anna and Kate – sometimes interpreted as alter egos. Alternating in the roles with Cristina Anselmo is Courtney Walsh, who has previously collaborated with Rehm at Stanford teaching the course Great Plays Through Performance, in which Old Times was used as a text.
While all bound under the banner of memory, Rehm explains that this year’s productions each take the study of memory and apply it in very different ways, placing different demands on the actors, the directors and the audience, and each dealing with its own set of issues. “Art doesn’t deal with the generic, it says something specific,” he says.
“Theater is the intersection of what is remembered and what is spontaneous, it is the art of memory.”
SST is a collaborative project between Stanford Summer Theater, Stanford Continuing Studies, and the Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts. Following a production of Under Milk Wood which closed in April, the summer program continues the festival’s exploration of memory with two more stage plays – Old Times and Oedipus – along with a free film series that runs from July 11 to August 8, and a community symposium scheduled for July 16.
The Stanford Summer Theater Memory Play Festival production of Old Times runs from July 7-24 at Pigott Theater. Oedipus runs from July 28-August 14 at the Nitery Theater. Click here (http://www.stanford.edu/group/summertheater/cgi-bin/sst/) for details on tickets as well as information on the simultaneous free film series Out of the Past, running from July 11-August 8. Memory Play also includes an all-day symposium titled Stages of Memory, featuring performances and panel discussions, on July 16.
By Kareem Yasin