By Caleigh Crow
“We don’t think of the Greeks as musical theatre,” says Joseph Shragge, “even though the choruses were sung and danced to.”
Joseph sits across from me at the ubiquitous wooden table that dominates the Quebec Drama Federation’s main meeting space. It’s a large table, long, darker in color; the varnish on it lovingly dyed by the consequence of hands and light on its surface. It’s expansive and weighty. As far as ubiquity goes, I know my dear table would be obliterated by the might of the three choirs portraying the Chorus in Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre’s production, Oedipus Part One: Assembly.
Joseph adapted the text from Lynn Kozak, a professor of classics at McGill University, who wrote the direct translation. It was while Joseph was working with Lynn on the script that something struck Joseph that would eventually lead to the involvement of the choirs. Joseph explains, “Oedipus opens with a mass movement of people supplicating, not just at King Oedipus’ palace gates, but all throughout the city. There’s one line that indicates others are at the marketplace and by the river, and I asked Lynn about it. ‘What do you mean there’s others? Other groups?’ She said yes, throughout the city. I had never thought of that before.”
If you’re familiar with classical Greek plays, you know the inclusion of the chorus can be a hurdle to a creative team, and for Joseph it was no exception. For the Oedipus team, it made sense to “think of the Greeks as musical theatre”. Joseph tells me that in a certain headspace, the question wasn’t how to portray the Chorus, but what even is the Chorus? “It’s like a poem, but if you think of it as a song, it works dramatically so much better than having people chant,” he says. “I’m hoping that having the chorus sung will add a magical dimension to it.”
Before the production reached this point, Joseph, Lynn, and dramaturg Anthony Kennedy, had been working on the script in conjunction with director Andreas Apergis, who translated the first quarter of the play before Lynn took over. The entire writing process has persisted over two years. “It’s really closer to translation in many ways,” Joseph says. “The impulse is to tear it apart and do something contemporary, and I’ve done that on other projects, and for some reason with Andreas we’ve always come back to thinking, this stuff is really interesting, the scenes are so rich.” Joseph laughs, “It’s better than what we could come up with, so we just keep tinkering and tinkering away at these sentences.”
Joseph notes that working on the script for so long has made him a little numb to some of the extremes of the play (in a word: incest), especially compared to other classical works. “It’s not like we’re all walking around worried about being accidentally married to our own mothers,” he says bluntly. “It’s so particular, that I don’t even know what kind of feelings that should engender in anyone. It’s a more difficult tragedy because we don’t relate to Oedipus the same way we do to Medea or Clytemnestra, or those power imbalances that are much more accessible.” So, how will audiences connect with the play? Joseph responds, “It begins with a horrible plague, a city in turmoil, that’s easy to understand. The cause of this is a murder, and we have to find the murderer. Now we go into this mystery then we just keep getting all these strange turns. All these turns start to relate back to the initial problem. It becomes this horror detective story.”
If it’s a translation then, it comes with all the quirks of trying to extract meaning from a highly representational art form: language. Joseph recounts the challenges that arose from trying to decipher two words: ‘the same’. In the scene, Oedipus is speaking with Tiresias, whose translated line ‘You’re speaking against the order of the cosmos, so speak no more, and spare me suffering the same’ had Joseph in a tizzy. “What’s the same? There’s certain ways if you order the sentence it seems like it makes sense, but why the same? The same suffering? It means Tiresias is outside the cosmic order or…” he shakes his head. “There’s a lot of that.”
I glean that Joseph is fond of Tiresias (who doesn’t love a blind prophet), from his care in determining what’s ‘the same’, and that he and I agree casting Leni Parker in that role is inspired. When asked what scene he’s most excited to see brought to life, Joseph answers “When Tiresias comes out and tells Oedipus you’re the pollution – and oh my god, that word…” he pauses to think about it. “For now, it’s pollution. But it could be contagion,” he can’t help himself, he’s a writer. He continues, “When Tiresias comes out and says you’re the cause of this plague, it’s such a powerful attack, revelation. That character has so much ferocity, and that is Leni Parker, and I know she’s going to excel.”
As our conversation continues, my once grandiose meeting table now seems increasingly diminutive. There are so many performers, singers, actors, and writers on board, each bringing their own artistry to this massive show. We have Choeur Maha, Zakynthines Phones Choir, and The Montreal Artists Choir bringing a towering presence to the role of the chorus. There’s an impressive cast, including Leni Parker, Chip Chuipka, Alison Darcy, and Mike Payette to name a few. Sophocles and a crack team of writers, translators, and dramaturgs, present us with a berserk plot built around a horror-murder mystery that intensifies to a dreadful, frightful, excellent climax– it’s oh so Greek.
Oedipus Part One: Assembly is playing from October 20 – 22 at the Centaur Theatre. Opening night is already sold out! Hurry and get your tickets by calling the Centaur box office at (514) 288-3161. For more information, check out Scapegoat Carnivale’s website here.