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Family, with Phoenician Binds

'Phoenician Women' successfully staged at Washington Masonic Memorial.

Alexandria-based Natural Theatricals took up residence in the beautiful amphitheater inside the George Washington Masonic Memorial two years ago. Having now mounted seven productions in that challenging space, it is clear that they have learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn't.

Euripides's "Phoenician Women," which opened in the Festival of Dionysos in Athens some 2,400 years ago, has been given a often fascinating production by the new professional theater group, scheduled to run through Aug. 27. It's the unorthodox — for its time — tale of Oedipus's family, following his famous self-blinding upon discovering his own unintentional incest.

Director Bob Bartlett streamlines the physical staging, using an elegantly simple set design prepared by Todd F. Edwards and fielding a cast that offers a few very satisfying performances and no unsatisfying ones.

Euripides's play didn't present the then-standard version of the story of Oedipus and his offspring when it opened, and modern audiences may find some of the differences between his version and the ones they studied in school surprising. Oedipus is still a towering tragic figure. His children still covet his throne enough to commit fratricide. But the changes are put to dramatically effective use and serve to keep you guessing about what might be coming next; at least to the extent that any presentation of well-known legend can keep you guessing.

THIS PRODUCTION USES a new translation that finds a balance between the stylized language often used when presenting "a classic" and a modern voice that today's audience finds easier to understand. It is the work of Carl R. Mueller who, in addition to translations of Goethe, Strindberg and Schnitzler, has translated many of the Greek standards and recently published a four-volume set of translations of the complete plays of Euripides.

In this translation, there seem to be three different styles of language being used. The classic Greek chorus speaks in a poetic pattern while the immediate family of Oedipus, most particularly Jocasta and her sons Polyneikes and Eteokles, seem to speak in a classically-tinged modern tongue. The key movers in the story of Kreon, Jocasta's brother who is called upon to sacrifice his own son for the good of his city, flows even more naturally from the lips of actors John Tweel, Kevin Finkelstein and most notably Manolo Santalla.

The story of Kreon dominates the second act and is by far the most dramatically satisfying portion of the production. It takes wing as Santalla enters as the blind prophet who breaks the news to Kreon that his son must

be sacrificed. Santalla has a fascinating ability to deliver his lines as if they were emerging from a vision in his head but he gives it a distinctly modern sound, almost as if his visions were the product of smoking something very interesting in the high days of hippiedom.

Tweel takes the play yet another step up in intensity as, in the role of Kreon, he struggles with the horrible choice between terrible tragedies.

Completing this trio of fine performances is Kevin Finkelstein as the son. He finds ways to communicate anguish in silence as he overhears the prophecy even after the blind seer has been told he's left the scene.

THE OEDIPUS STORY is told through the eyes of his wife, Jocasta. She sees her sons' inability to work together cause them to die together. Cherie Weinert delivers her heartfelt orations with dignity, but the part gets bogged down a bit with too many words. Of the two actors playing her sons, Trei Ramsey over-emotes from time to time while Jason Nious is more controlled. He makes Eteokles' intransigence if not understandable, then at least human.

Set designer Edwards also provides an effective soundscape for the production, a semi-musical environment that combines his own musical compositions with the audio version of the radio emissions of Saturn. This distinctly 21st century technological feat heightens the impact of this ancient play.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.