Anyone who has followed Sam Shepard's career knows that much of his work has offered versions of the Oedipus story. There are many versions of conflicts between fathers and sons as well as many versions of sexy, powerful matriarchs. It's not surprising that at this stage of his career, Shepard would take on a more direct telling of Sophocles' tragedy. Well, not so direct really.
As the subtitle suggests, the ninety-minute play is a series of short variations of the drama of Oedipus Rex. Some seem to be fairly direct translations of key moments in Sophocles' tragedy. Others, taking place in the contemporary Mojave Desert seem to place the tale in the world of contemporary television, as a forensics expert picks through the evidence left at the scene of Oedipus's murder of his father. Some of the imagery is familiar from other Shepard plays. The setting is a bloody slaughterhouse and our Oedipus (the great Stephen Rea) wears blood-spattered overalls. Jocasta (Brid Brennan) appears in a blood-colored velvet gown, as if she is part of Sophocles original. Tiresias (Lloyd Hutchinson) looks like a homeless man. Most of the variations are soliloquies, underscoring the fundamental isolation of these characters. As usual in a Shepard play, music (here a live cello and slide guitar), play an important role in creating the mood of each scene and bridging the scenes.
The question Shepard asks here, is what good does tragedy do? Does it offer catharsis? Does it offer an apt metaphor for the human condition? Do we learn anything from watching it being reenacted? Shepard doesn't answer the question so much as poke and probe at his own fixation with this particular story.
Shepard wrote this play for the Derry-based Field Day Theatre Company, run by Stephen Rea. Four of the actors in this eight-actor cast are from that company. Rea, Brennan and Hutchinson are familiar faces in British theatre, television and film. They and their American colleagues are excellent and the always-resourceful Nancy Meckler has staged the work effectively. Nonetheless, it all left me a bit cold. From the polite applause at the end, I would say that this was true of much of the audience. Perhaps it was a mistake to see this a few hours after seeing the powerful OUR LADY OF KIBEHO.
A PARTICLE OF DREAD contains some beautiful writing and is given an excellent production. Unfortunately, it doesn't engender much feeling.
A PARTICLE OF DREAD (OEDIPUS VARIATIONS). Signature Theatre. November 29, 2014.