Director Steven Wilson would have settled for "Oedipus the Trilogy" when he called playwright Sean Graney, but when he got five plays rolled into one, a snappy serial-style title was in order, something along the lines of "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." Director and writer kicked the idea around, and that's how "Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes" got its name.
The world premiere by No Name Players that opens Friday is a hybrid of five Greek tragedies with doses of humor, music and universal themes in contemporary times, as adapted by Mr. Graney. The new play represents Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," "Oedipus in Colonus" and "Antigone"; Aeschylus' "The Seven Against Thebes"; and Euripides' "The Phoenician Women."
Mr. Wilson, a Point Park graduate (class of '96) after Seton La-Salle and Montour high schools, began his acting career at 11 in a Pittsburgh Playhouse summer production of "Once Upon a Playground." After 15 years acting, directing and teaching theater in Chicago, he is in the third year of pursuing an M.F.A. in directing at the University of Texas, Austin. As a company member of the The Hypocrites, founded by Mr. Graney, he performed the title role in "Oedipus" in 2009. He returned to Pittsburgh last year to direct "Orange Flower Water" for No Name, and forged a collaboration with producing director Don DiGiulio.
"I was born and raised here and I had my first time on stage at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. ... It's great to be back home in my hometown and to bring something like this here, and to be taking a chance on a new play here, that's incredible," Mr. Wilson said.
While Mr. Wilson has been finding a niche as a director, Mr. Graney has been adapting 32 Greek tragedies into the epic, three-day theater event "All Our Tragic" as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. The 32 is on the heels of Mr. Graney's well-received adaptation of Sophocles' plays, "These Seven Sicknesses," which was well-received at the off-Broadway Flea Theater. The New York Times called it "vibrant ... entertaining and fresh" and The New Yorker gushed, "A night at the theater that leaves the viewer with a rich tapestry of experiences."
Mr. Wilson and his wife, LiveWire Chicago Theatre's Erin Barlow, last summer participated in readings of Mr. Graney's "All Our Tragic," which shares DNA with "Seven Sicknesses" and "Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes."
"He's attempting to bring it all back into a now-ness. So there is a definite homage to Greek and poetry, but there's a huge amount of modern touches and, surprising for people, a lot of humor."
The ground covered in the No Name production follows the path of fathers' sins visited on their children -- Laius, king of Thebes, sends son Oedipus to be killed in hopes of thwarting an oracle's vision that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother, Jocasta. Oedipus is saved and raised unaware of the prophecy, but destiny will have its way. Oedipus kills dad still unaware of his true identity, becomes king, marries his mother and fathers four children before learning the truth and blinding himself in a particularly bloody scene. At his death, Oedipus' daughter, Antigone, tries in vain to give him a proper send-off, while sons Eteocles and Polynices battled for the kingdom.
"Oedipus and the Foul Mess in Thebes" borrows from the theater-of-the-absurd style favored by the Hypocrites company.
"We started to do American classics and we breathed a little bit of absurdism into them, which gave them a little bit of a fresh perspective," the director explained. "We were always keeping true to the story but the idea was getting to these extremes, getting the high highs and the low lows. So you might find something silly and laugh a lot, but in the next moment, it goes to a deep, dark place with some of these characters. The Hypocrites were always interested in opposing forces rubbing up against each other."
The extreme violence of the original Oedipus stories plays out in the intimate Off the Wall staging area, but there are moments of humor and interjections of a cappella song snippets to keep you guessing. In one scenario, brothers Eteocles and Polynices agree to fight one-on-one for the throne, and each chooses a second -- Eteocles pick is the "Theban champion," who arrives to a song that the director describes as "an '80s-'90s wrestling entrance."
"It's all pretty silly, but then once the fight actually happens, it turns very serious, because lives are lost," Mr. Wilson said.
As an example of the seesaw of intent, the director said to look no further than the tagline on the stylish poster: "Murder ... intrigue ... a turtle!"
"When people see that, my hope is they will know this is the most different version of Oedipus they will have ever seen."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960. First Published August 1, 2013 4:00 AM