Greek tragedy is an acquired taste. Audiences unacquainted with the genre may find it overly melodramatic, filled with over-the-top weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth.
Still, there are occasions — usually in collegiate productions because of historical significance and educational value — when one or several aspects of such a presentation may be quite effective, even memorable. This currently is the case at Vanguard University in Costa Mesa.
One of the oldest, and most notable, examples of Greek tragedy is Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," which dates back to 429 BC when mankind's fate was foretold and, at least in the theater, usually came to pass, often with horrific consequences. Vanguard's student actors have tackled this ancient drama at full throttle.
Under the incisive direction of Susan K. Berkompas, where only a few questionable casting choices mar a dynamic production, "Oedipus" explodes with the requisite emotional fury. The show presents a daunting challenge for its cast members.
Chief among these, in the most demanding title role, is Preston Butler III, an actor of supreme power making his last appearance as a Vanguard student actor. Butler stridently seeks the truth to the prophecy that he would murder his father and wed his mother — and when the answer reveals itself, it's monstrously unpleasant to experience.
In this uninterrupted 90 minutes of unrelenting anguish, Butler delivers a performance of physical and emotional power seldom encountered on any stage. Although a bit limited by the text — a translation by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald — Butler seethes with supreme righteousness as he hunts down the facts of his chronology, which will eventually destroy him.
As his mother/wife, commonly known as Jocasta, Kimberly Monks blends love and terror into a riveting interpretation. Her brother, Creon, is mildly portrayed by Christopher Orta, whose bland youthfulness compromises the role's potential.
A similar problem arises late in the play when two shepherds, apparent contemporaries, are questioned. Their age difference, as portrayed, renders the sequence beyond artistic license, challenging credibility.
Jordan Laemmlen skillfully projects an ominous aura as the blind prophet Tiresias, summoned by Oedipus to uncover the harrowing events of the past. Vincent Catalina also is strong as the king's loyal lieutenant, while Madilyn Cooper and Tiffany Rollerson shine in chorus assignments.
Paul Eggington's imposing Egyptian backdrops and Lia M. Hansen's ancient costume designs lend visual credence, as do the eerie lighting effects created by David Pecoraro.
It's doubtful you'll ever witness an older play than "Oedipus Rex," or one with such aggressive power or a central character so dynamically portrayed as the version now on stage in the Lyceum Theater.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Daily Pilot.
If You Go
What: "Oedipus Rex"
Where: Lyceum Theater, Vanguard University, 55 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Closing performances at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $12 to $14
Information: (714) 668-6145 or theatre.vanguard.edu