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New York City Theater

"A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)”
Signature Center

Sam Shepard has taken the cultural pulse of the nation, creating memorable characters and distinctive dialogue in powerful works like “Buried Child,” “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Fool for Love” and “True West.” Sad to say, his latest, “A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)” at Signature Center, is not in that company.

As that parenthetical subtitle promises, this is a riff on Sophocles’ masterpiece, itself a pillar of Western civilization.  No spoiler alert necessary: It’s the one about the cursed Oedipus, doomed to kill his father and marry his mother. Freud had a field day with the story and no doubt it means something personal to Shepard who often writes about fathers and sons, as well as curses.

Shepard here has other reasons for co-opting and updating the tragedy. His Laius, the king who’s killed, represents all tyrants. Here he’s murdered twice, once in Ireland, the second time in the U.S. “Everything has a history, doesn’t it?” says one character. Rage, paranoia, suspicions, terror, torture – ever and ever more. A clothes line filled with bloody garments is our fate.

As in the Greek version, Oedipus (also Otto here) sets about to find out who murdered the king. Actually, of course, he’s searching for himself, for it is he who killed his dad and married his mom, to everyone’s consternation. Mom Jocasta thereupon hangs herself after which Oedipus puts out his eyes. Instead of blaming others for the crimes, he (and we, presumably) must take responsibility.

That’s what “Particle” is more or less about, a meritorious theme but the presentation is a slog, more exercise than drama. Most of the characters shape-shift so we hardly know them, much less care about them. Juxtaposing Ireland and America may look good on paper but the two halves don’t mesh. In Ireland, we have ancient grudges; in America, we have a detective story.

Under Nancy Meckler’s impetuous direction, Stephen Rea is a convulsive, riveting Oedipus/Otto, Judith Roddy a moving Antigone and Aidan Redmond a dignified Laius. Lloyd Hutchinson is wonderfully scruffy as the Tiresias, with Jason Kolotouros a hulking policeman and that fine actor Matthew Rauch a determined forensic inspector. The great Brid Brennan plays Jocasta with barely suppressed fear and trembling. Her death is the evening’s one startling moment.

Otherwise, this mining of mythic themes is more blatant and intellectual than subtle and emotional. Shepard’s “A Particle of Dread” is too many particles and not enough dread.

--David A . Rosenberg
Dec. 3, 2014

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