All together now:
Brush up your classics,
Pile up the blood and the gore,
Recall those tragedies Attic,
Those doomed royal families of yore.
Talk about a foul family mess! TV soap opera has nothing on those ancient Greek clans, the royal houses of Thebes and Argos -- Oedipus, Antigone and company in one case, Agamemnon, Orestes et al. in the other.
Aha! I can hear eyes glazing over left and right as you read those names, your memories of half-digested classics in half-attended survey courses swirling mistily in the background. But you just won't believe how much comedy there is in this "Oedipus ..." ("Foul Mess" for short) at No Name Players.
Sean Graney's play serves up a tasty version of Oedipus Wrecks and Antigone Argues, speeding through the whole thing in just under two hours, including the intermission, during which you have a drink and share your amused awe.
Act 1 is basically "Oedipus Rex" and "Oedipus at Colonus," following the unhappy king from his discovery of his crimes (unwitting patricide then matri-matrimony, in which he has four kids by his mother), through purification by suffering to contentious death. Act 2 is "Antigone" and a mix of "Seven Against Thebes" and "The Phoenician Women," interweaving the pratfall war between Oedipus' two sons with the eternal battle between spirit (Antigone) and order (Uncle Creon, the dictator).
That's three plays by Sophocles and one each by Aeschylus and Euripides -- a whole Osher course in just two hours. But don't let my CliffsNotes summary turn you off. "Foul Mess" is a hoot, played skillfully for laughs and shudders, not in mockery of the original plays but recognition of their brawling melodrama. In this, playwright Graney shows respect especially for the latest of the great Greeks, Euripides, who saw the mythic family tragedies with an ironic eye.
In fact, the intentional awfulness of "Foul Mess" also has passages of deep sadness, in keeping with the original tragic rhythms. Missing, of course, is the religious awe that these stories once inspired. The mysteries now are those of brief lives and family dynamics, painful and comic.
As with the Greeks, the play is mainly about words, not action. Mr. Graney's chief comic technique is to interweave the elevated language of tragedy (he writes loose, short, punchy poetic lines) with the shock of contemporary lingo. Ironies verge on puns: "Baby" is an ironic endearment; "like brother, like son" cuts both ways; "little chinks in the wall" occasions a silly charge of racism.
Don DiGiulio's set has a similar dichotomy. It seems some trashy kitchen or workshop, littered with crumpled newspaper. But over time, its platforms become the stage of tragic ritual and the newspapers, the flotsam and jetsam of history. We are reminded those ancient Greeks didn't know they were ancient.
Steven Wilson directs with what seems a sure hand, but it's hard to separate that from the work of his seven fine actors, some new to me, some better than I have seen them before.
The central trio is Colleen Pulawski as Antigone (doubling as her mother, Jocasta, so we see the family resemblance), Cameron Knight as Oedipus (doubling as a brawler right out of "Rocky") and Ricardo Vila-Roger as Creon, the continually rationalizing opportunist.
Ms. Pulawski is a Carnegie Mellon undergraduate, and she's enthralling: intense but still, underplayed, nuanced. Mr. Knight is more florid, as Oedipus must be, the self-regarding fool who only sees once he's blind. Mr. Ricardo Vila-Roger is firm in an unsympathetic role, the apologist for state power.
Tressa Glover primarily plays the Blind Seer (aka Tiresias) who keeps appearing with riddling oracles, skillfully mixing insight with pratfall. John Garet Stoker, another discovery from CMU, appears first as a joking Theseus but mainly as the pitiable then tragic Haemon.
Finally, there are Todd Betker and Patrick Cannon as Polynices and Eteokles, squabbling brothers right out of a teen movie farce. Soon they grow up, one swilling beer, the other a Hugh Hefner playboy, both despicable. (You'll see Mr. Cannon this fall as George in Pittsburgh Public Theater's "Our Town.")
Playing characters extracted from several plays requires swerves in characterization, but it isn't the people so much as their words and the underlying human inevitabilities. In the end, "Foul Mess" is as serious as you want to let it be, but mainly it's lots of fun.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944. First Published August 9, 2013 4:00 AM