It’s not your typical "boy meets girl" story.
It’s more like a "boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy procreates with girl, boy discovers that years ago he unknowingly killed his father and that the girl he married is actually his biological mother, girl hangs herself, boy gouges his own eyes out with pins" story.
Oedipus, the Greek tragic play written by Sophocles in the fifth century B.C., has simultaneously captivated and horrified audiences for millennia. And despite its uncomfortable subject matter, a group of Arlington teenagers are winning awards for their unorthodox version of the classic.
Earlier this month, Yorktown High School’s version of Oedipus won second place at the Virginia High School League (VHSL) One-Act Play regional competition. This earned the cast and crew a trip to Charlottesville to compete in a statewide competition of the best one-act plays from high schools throughout Virginia.
"I knew Oedipus very well and thought it would be a real challenge for the kids to do," Carol Cadby said. She’s the director of the Theatre Arts Department at Yorktown and was the catalyst behind the whole production.
In September of last year, Cadby took the original Oedipus, a trilogy of plays that usually takes several hours to perform, and squeezed it into one act that is completed in around 30 minutes. After some initial showings in November, the entire production was totally revamped and the script was rewritten into the award-winning version that the students are using now.
One of the biggest challenges that faced Cadby, who has been at Yorktown since 1995, was the sheer brevity of the one act format. "It’s very short so there’s no time to get lost," she said. To compensate for the lack of available time, she knew that she would have to focus on the symbolism in the original play rather than the dialogue.
"IT’S NOT A PEDANTIC PIECE," Cadby said about her interpretation of Oedipus. "It’s really visually stunning." In the short amount of time they have, the cast and crew of the play emphasize costumes and color, making the visual aspects of the play even more important.
To symbolize the fractured aspects of the title character’s tortured psyche, three different Yorktown actors play Oedipus. Garrett Mercer, Brandyn Diachenko and John Houston all play different aspects of Oedipus’ life, from an ill-fated young boy to a wizened, old man with self-inflicted blindness.
Cadby also chose to use a mask motif throughout the play. For the character of Oedipus, the Yorktown tech crew constructed a nine-foot tall mask and that dominates the stage and instantly captures the audience’s attention. "I used [large] masks to get across the bigger-than-life concepts in Greek tragedy," Cadby said.
At first, those bigger-than-life concepts were daunting to the actors, most of whom were barely old enough to drive.
Mercer, an 18-year-old senior at Yorktown, had difficulty handling Oedipus’ epic themes at the beginning. "The play was hard to sink my teeth into because of the really heavy subject matter," Mercer said. "Getting around the whole concept of killing your father and sleeping with your mother is really humbling in a way."
Carleigh Smith, a 17-year-old senior, is one of the three actresses who play Oedipus’ wife/mother, Jocasta. "It’s very challenging to try to put yourself in the situation of having that horrible thing happen to you," she said. In her three years of performing in Yorktown’s theatre group, this was the most difficult project she participated in.
Cadby acknowledges that "at first, the kids were taken aback by the subject matter. But as we worked at it, [the play] became more appealing to them." The students became so dedicated to the play that two of the actors — Matt Bloch and George Foster — shaved their heads to play the role of Creon.
Mercer said that the show prompted him to examine his own life. "It really got me thinking about the whole concept of fate," he said.
THE INITIAL SHOCK of the ancient play was not only limited to the actors. Some of the younger audience members didn’t know what to make of the violence and incest that pervades the story.
At the end of a performance at Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington, the audience was stunned. "There was just silence and a lot of kids were overwhelmed," Cadby recalls.
The VHSL regional competition, held at Herndon High School, was more receptive to Yorktown’s performance. They were awarded second place which qualified them for the state competition next month.
"It was a really great moment to win at Herndon," Smith said.
Yorktown was the first school to perform at the competition, which meant that after their performance they had to watch all of their competitors and try not to second guess themselves. "It was really hard to go first," Smith said, "and then watch all the other shows. [I thought] we were on shaky ground."
But in the end, Yorktown succeeded and is now moving on to the next level. "I am definitely excited to go to Charlottesville," Smith said. "I am looking forward to spending time with the cast and showing people what Yorktown is all about."
Mercer appreciates the school’s success this year because "last year we missed going to the [state competition] by a small margin."
While his main goal is to go down to Charlottesville and win the competition, Mercer said that he is also looking forward to having fun with his fellow actors and taking in a glut of one-act plays. "We’ll become closer and see some great theatre."