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New Oedipus, Interesting Complex

Natural Theatricals offers different look at Greek myth.

"Jocasta," the play that is receiving its world premiere in the amphitheater inside the George Washington Masonic Memorial, switches both the viewpoint and the setting of the classic Greek myth of Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother, Jocasta.

In Philip Freund's play, the concentration is on the wife/mother rather than on Oedipus, or even their offspring. Just to make matters even more distinct, Freund places the action not in ancient Greece but on the Caribbean Island of Martinique in the 1890s, a generation after the end of black slavery there, but long before the collapse of the French Planters' control of the government, society and economy of the island.

Freund's Jocasta is a wealthy white owner of a plantation (or "villa" as they are known there) on the north side of the island, and the lover she takes, not knowing he is really her son, is the field hand who is the offspring of her youthful encounter with the black overseer of a villa in the south.

Freund wrote his play in the 1960s, and it still shows some of the signs of being produced in that turbulent decade. The three-act play proceeds in measured, sometimes plodding, steps. It tells the story in strict chronological order and reveals information about the characters' pasts a little at a time.

Director Gregory Stuart doesn't try to alter that matter-of-fact pace of the piece. Instead, he uses a spare design and judicious additions of sounds from off-stage to enhance the feeling of a society where time passes slowly and things aren't expected to change very much from season to season. Certainly, there is no expectation on the part of whites or blacks that the established order of society will yield to anything approaching equality. The struggles of these characters are purely personal, not societal.

PLAYING JOCASTA is the production company's Artistic Director, Paula Alprin. Her performance puts the emphasis on the Greek myth origin of her part. It is not that she plays it as Greek, but that she plays it with a heft appropriate for a famous mythological character with broad gestures and a regal bearing.

The company, Natural Theatricals, employed a Martinican Dialect Coach, Kathleen Gonzales, to help the entire eight member cast get the Caribbean accents right. The black native laborers and blind oracle have accents that are both believable and understandable. Alprin, on the other hand, has a patrician patois that is very difficult to understand and this causes the play a good deal of difficulty.

John Brennan makes a local stage debut as Jocasta's white suitor and does a fine job of it. Lolita-Marie, as her servant, is a bit too made up to compensate for her youth since her character is supposed to be much older. This excess is a bit of a surprise since Lolita-Marie is also the make-up artist for the entire production.

Cezar Remon plays the Oedipus character and Jason B. McIntosh his father. Remon, sporting cornrows that might well have been in vogue at the time in Martinique, seems a bit uncomfortable on stage for his scenes with Alprin's Jocasta, but is effective in the earlier scenes with characters from the world of the black laborer class.

Remon and McIntosh have a very well staged fight scene to open the play. This is followed by a striking short scene between Remon and Terry Spann as a blind oracle, a Gan-gan in the local parlance. It is a shame that the script doesn't give the Gan-gan more to do after that initial scene, for Spann's performance is the most effective in the production.

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.