'A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Stephen Rea and Lloyd Hutchinson in "A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations)"
Although it boasts undeniable theatrical imagination, this latest effort from the prolific playwright smacks of willful self-indulgence

Stephen Rea stars in Sam Shepard's modern-day riff on Sophocles' Greek tragedy

It might be wise to reread Oedipus the King before seeing A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), now receiving its American premiere courtesy of the Signature Theatre. Sam Shepard's aptly titled theatrical meditation on Sophocles' Greek tragedy is like a series of jazzy riffs on its inspiration, plumbing the existential emotions of the work while loosely adapting it to modern-day times. This oblique intellectual exercise is likely to prove off-putting to all but the most adventurous audiences, although Shepard completists will no doubt want to catch the latest offering from the playwright's ever-restless imagination.

Originally presented by Ireland's Field Day theater company, the piece stars veteran Shepard interpreter Stephen Rea in the dual roles of Oedipus and Otto. That duality is a recurring theme of the work, which alternates between a barely conveyed ancient Greece and the Southern California desert near Barstow.

Oedipus, you'll remember, was cursed by the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi, here known as "Uncle Del" (Lloyd Hutchinson), with the fate of eventually murdering his father, Laius, and marrying his mother Jocasta. To prevent these horrific events from happening, Laius penetrated his infant's feet with a large pin and left him to die. The child was rescued and allowed to grow into manhood and, well, you know what happened next.

Read More 'Shepard and Dark': Film Review

Shepard seems less interested in rehashing the original plot — not that there is much of one, anyway — than delivering abstract variations on its themes. Thus we have the crippled Otto, whose wife Jocelyn (Brid Brennan, a Tony winner for Dancing at Lughnasa) and daughter Annalee (the radiant Judith Roddy) correspond to Sophocles' Jocasta and Antigone, becoming obsessed with the mysterious murder in the desert of three men. One of them, the drug lord Langos, is clearly a stand-in for Laius. Sensing a mysterious connection to the horrific event, he inserts himself into the investigation of the crime led by a not terribly bright highway patrolman (Jason Kolotouros) and a no-nonsense forensic investigator (Matthew Rauch). Periodically, Laius (Aidan Redmond) weighs in to deliver his side of the story.

Audience members will find themselves baffled at times by the juxtaposition of characters and situations, which seem to have been tossed into a blender and randomly reassembled. Director Nancy Meckler's production — performed on a gleaming, blood-drenched white-tiled set and featuring atmosphere-setting, onstage musical accompaniment by cellist Neil Martin and guitarist Todd Livingston — accentuates the stylized nature of the proceedings.

Filled with comic digressions — such as an exchange between Laius' modern day incarnation Lawrence and Uncle Del in which they discuss various sexual positions, and a rumination about the origins of the term "willy nilly" — the piece is frustratingly oblique rather than illuminating. Shepard's willful self-indulgence smacks more of an overeager university drama student than a seasoned playwright. There's undeniable imagination on display, but the mercifully brief evening never comes into dramatic focus despite such chillingly conveyed moments as Jocasta hanging herself upon realizing she has married her own son.

Read More 'A Delicate Balance': Theater Review  

The normally reliable Rea delivers a less than subtle characterization (or characterizations), occasionally devolving into near vaudeville-style comic shtick, while Brennan and Roddy give forceful turns as the tortured Jocasta and Antigone and their modern counterparts. Best of all is Redmond, displaying a steely charismatic presence as the doomed king.

A distinctly minor entry in Shepard's estimable canon, A Particle of Dread nonetheless meets Signature's goal of presenting works by its long roster of playwrights-in-residence that might otherwise not be seen in major productions.

Cast: Stephen Rea, Lloyd Hutchinson, Aidan Redmond, Brid Brennan, Jason Kolotouros, Matthew Rauch, Judith Roddy
Director: Nancy Meckler
Playwright: Sam Shepard
Set designer: Frank Conway
Costume designer: Lorna Marie MUgan
Lighting designer: Michael Chybowski
Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff
Music: Neil Martin

Presented by Signature Theatre and Field Day