Transplanting the classics: Who wins?

Considering 'Oedipus El Rey' at Victory Gardens Theater

July 13, 2012

I didn’t begin as an enthusiast of re-setting the classics in different time periods, locations or cultures. It always seemed distracting, an effort by the director to steal focus from the author, an effect I generally described as “Let’s do Shakespeare in aquamarine swimsuits.” On seeing a very early Bob Falls version of The Tempest (at Court Theatre, back when it took place in the eponymous courtyard) set on a sort of white-man’s-burden version of a voodoo island, all I could think was, "If you think the play is boring, don’t direct it.” As a verbal person, I resented having the canonical words cluttered up with a lot of visual detritus.

That was silly, of course, because theater is never purely verbal, always visual and auditory and tactile and generally polymorphous perverse. So though one might criticize a particular combination of those elements, it makes no sense to argue that only one such combination can ever be justified. Directors, after all, get paid to decide what the play means and to communicate that vision to the audience. They may do their best to channel the author’s intention or instead share their own understanding of the issues the author raises, and in either case they may fail miserably or succeed gloriously. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our concepts, but in our execution (if we are underlings).  

I learned this lesson from a pair of Shakespeare re-settings. At Stratford, Ontario, they transplanted Othello to a naval base during World War II. Without changing a word the production conveyed Othello’s isolation and alienation more clearly than any I’d seen before. There he is, in blinding dress-whites that emphasize the darkness of his skin, surrounded by the insular snobbery of the Navy. At the same time, the choice of period highlighted the fact that Iago is tormenting Othello in mid-war, making more reasonable the latter’s susceptibility: If you’re worried about an imminent invasion, of course you’re an easy target for anyone who wants to suggest that the enemy is right here at home.

Listen to The Dueling Critics debate Oedipus El Rey on Eight Forty-Eight:

Then I saw yet another version of The Tempest, this time directed by Barbara Gaines. She had Prospero and his intimates clothed as Southern planters, while the usurpers are members of the Union Army. The Reconstruction setting annoyed me by violating my simple-minded sense of Prospero as The Good Guy — and so much the better! It made me notice the extent to which Prospero’s beautiful world depends on slavery, not only of Caliban but of Ariel, and made infinitely more resonant Ariel’s final line, Freedom, hi-day!

So when someone sets Oedipus Rex in contemporary, gang-ridden L.A., I’ve learned to quell my visceral if-you-don’t-like-the-play response and go in with an open mind. And what do I learn? That the classics are classics because they address the big questions — in the case of Oedipus, is anyone in charge of the insane way that life unfolds? If so, is S/He messing with us or simply unconcerned? And if not, are we responsible for every disaster that befalls us, or are we just particles randomly ricocheting through a random universe?  

These are questions that haunt every individual and infuse every culture. A certain Eurocentric Great-Books attitude regards that fact as a reason to require everyone to read the Greeks; but an equally sensible approach is to take what the Greeks have given us and use the vernacular to make it accessible to everyone. For my money, the only thing lost in transplanting Oedipus from ancient Greece to contemporary Latino Los Angeles is the distancing effect of Greek tragedy.

Classical conventions of performance are so different from our own that it’s often difficult to see how Oedipus, or Medea, have anything to do with us; a resetting to a familiar environment removes that difficulty. And though I can’t know the impact on an impoverished urban Latino audience of a retelling complete with Spanglish and profanity and tattoos, perhaps they’ll experience the shock of recognition which makes theater the powerful art form it is. (Whether impoverished Latinos will actually get to Victory Gardens is a separate question.)  

For the rest of us, these re-settings and re-tellings give us the opportunity to look at familiar questions from unfamiliar perspectives. Maybe that will give us a better shot at finding the answers.