The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 4, $25 through December 23, $55 after
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard continues his Legacy residency at the Signature Theatre with A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), a contemporary examination of the Oedipus myth first explored by Sophocles nearly twenty-five-hundred years ago. Presented with Brian Fiel and Stephen Rea’s Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, where the ninety-minute play premiered in the fall of 2013, A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) mixes two primary story lines, one taking place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the other set in the California desert. In the former, gangster kingpin Lawrence/Laius (Aidan Redmond) receives a prophecy from Uncle Del (Lloyd Hutchinson) that “any child born to you and your lovely queen, Jocasta, will turn out to be your killer and the husband of his mother,” so he locks his wife (Brid Brennan) in a cage. Meanwhile, out in the Far West of America, highway patrol officer Harrington (Jason Kolotouros) and forensic investigator RJ Randolph (Matthew Rauch) are on the case of a triple murder that the wheelchair-bound Otto (Rea) is obsessed with. “None of it makes any sense! Are you kidding? This is just — this is just plain old slaughter — butchery. Like the old days,” Harrington says. “Old days?” Randolph asks. “Disemboweling — hearts torn out — drawn and quartered — heads rolling. Blood dripping down the altar steps,” Harrington replies. Randolph: “Oh — ancient then?” Harrington: “Ancient, yes, but —” Randolph: “Everything has a history, doesn’t it? I mean, this stuff didn’t come out of thin air.” Everything does have a history, which Shepard delves into as the two stories echo each other and merge, “draped in mystery and confusion,” as Oedipus (Rea) says.
Mystery and confusion abound in Shepard’s play, which reunites the two-time Tony nominee with longtime collaborators Rea (Geography of a Horse Dreamer, Kicking a Dead Horse) and director Nancy Meckler (Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child), who have worked with one another on and off since the 1970s. The intersecting plots take place on Frank Conway’s clinically white-tiled set stained with blood, a clothesline of torn fabrics representing drying intestines in one corner, above which is an alcove where cellist Neil Martin and slide guitarist Todd Livingston contribute live music. It’s not always easy to know who is who and when is when as the story drags on, with several of the actors playing more than one role, occasionally addressing the audience directly, and the accents, American and Irish, eventually seem to intermingle. (Brennan plays Jocasta and Jocelyn, Judith Roddy plays Antigone and Annalee, Redmond plays Laius and Larry, and Hutchinson is Uncle Del, a traveler, Tiresias, and the Maniac of the Outskirts.) The Oscar-nominated Rea (The Crying Game) reveals the most depth as Oedipus, who is seeking revenge for a past wrong, and Otto, whose daughter, Annalee, is trying to protect her infant son, getting to the heart of Shepard’s own forensic investigation of fate and destiny, parents and children, and murder and duality, showing how little humanity has changed through the ages. It all makes for a rather uncomfortable experience. “Oh, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy, tragedy / Piss on it / Piss on Sophocles’ head,” Annalee says. “What’s it for? Catharsis? Purging? Metaphor? What’s in it for us?” Despite some intense moments amid lofty ideals, A Particle of Dread leaves us to ponder such critical questions, about the play itself.