Sophocles would be a mite surprised if he dropped in at the CSC Theatre on Manhattan's East 13th Street to see the Oedipus that's in progress there. In 44-year-old writer/director Dare Clubb's daring new slant on the 2,500-year-old drama, the woman whom Oedipus rapes/is seduced by is not his mother but his stepmother, the tortured, frustrated, passionate Merope; and when the doomed hero comes upon the Sphinx, she tries to seduce him, too.
Both these ladies are portrayed in the Blue Light Theater Company's production by a woman you may have much admired as blunt, genial Police Chief Marge Gunderson of Fargo, North Dakota; quite probably, along with a zillion other people around the world, you also saw Frances McDormand accepting the 1997 Best Actress Oscar for that performance.
There are, in fact, a great many film and stage roles to which she's brought something special since coming out of Yale Drama School 16 years ago most recently the Blanche du Bois of a Streetcar at the Gate Theatre, Dublin. At Yale there was a fellow from Montana named Dare Clubb. "We didn't even know he was a writer" until they saw a play of his called Flash Floods. "Dare and I have been friends for 18 years," she said now, garbed in an old sweat shirt, old skirt and sandals, taking a breather from a rehearsal of Oedipus. Clubb brought the script to her a year-and-a-half ago. "I said: 'When you hand me 190 pages and ask me to read it, you're asking a great favor of me as a friend.' "
A subsequent four-and-a-half-hour reading by herself and other actors "to see if theoretically it could be done" proved to everyone's satisfaction that it could be. "We broke twice. At the second break we ordered pizza, and nobody sat down to eat it. We wanted to get back and read some more. The whole thing's kind of snowballed since then." At this writing it's also still four-and-a-half hours long.
If she's going to do new theatre, she wants it to be real theatre "Not a television script disguised as theatre, not some young guy practicing for his screenplays. This, after all" Oedipus and his fate "is one of the basic stories of human existence." And there's more to it than that for her personally. "I've known Dare for so long," she said. "He's used certain aspects of myself to tell that story. And then there's the fact that Merope is an adoptive parent, which I am, too."
"For five years now," Merope exclaims early in the play, "I have examined every touch, every expression, every nuance, before I let it out into the world. I plan every gesture, shape and polish each one as if it were metal, a piece of copper
. . . Piece by piece I have replaced every human part of me with something I know I can control . . ."
". . . so as not to reveal her true feelings," said Mrs. Joel Coen, Oscar-winning star of the Coen brothers' Fargo. "Keeping always in control. Because of things that happen outside my acting. Celebrity," said Frances McDormand. "One either chooses to become a celebrity or it's forced on one."
And now that it's been forced upon you?
"You know, I'll take the nice parts and reject the ones that don't fit." Marge Gunderson couldn't have said it better.
-- by Jerry Tallmer