Assistant Director Jake Penner asks - and answers - Why Oedipus?

Posted September 28, 2021 By Jake Penner

Oed Chorus Web

Artistic Associate and Assistant Director of Oedipus answers the perpetual (and tricky) question of "Why this play now?" 

Why Oedipus?

I couldn’t tell you in clear terms why we chose to program Oedipus. Which I suppose, being the first and arguably the most important job of any producer — having a clear answer to the Why? and the Why now? of any play — made me a little nervous at first. I like having clear answers.

Because most of the time the Why is actually quite clear. Perhaps you haven’t done that play in a while or that play’s subject matter — the What — resonates with the conversation being batted about in the cultural winds around you. The choice of which play to program next is oftentimes obvious.

But in other less obvious instances, the Why can sometimes boil down to just a feeling. An instinct. A thing burrowed deep in your dreams nudging you to explore. Explore what? Well, in all likelihood, something hard. Hard but true.

I went to see Oedipus again a few days ago after having spent the week since the play opened with my head in other APT business. I’d served as Assistant Director to Adapter-Director David Daniel, which is a little like being Elon Musk’s IT consultant: you may say something smart now and then, but it’s nothing the guy hasn’t already thought of.

But I’ll be honest with you — and please don’t tell my boss Brenda about this — I didn’t do a whole lot in that week back in the office. I spent a fair amount of that time just sitting, staring, thinking. It’s an odd feeling finally coming around the question as to why to produce a play after you’ve already adapted, cast, designed, rehearsed, and opened it; yet, here I was, returning to that fundamental producer question, perhaps a tinge more ready to understand that persistent, instinctive, burrowing, thing.

I don’t think we wanted to produce Oedipus. I think our choice to do so was obligatory.

You may differ in your interpretation of this classic drama, but that’s what’s nice about a classic drama: all opinions welcomed.

When I read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and David Daniel’s adaptation, and when I sit quietly at the director’s table listening to the ancient poetry gently unspool to reveal the most jagged of truths, and when I watch choreographer and ensemble and lead actor dig deep into their own dreams or nightmares to clasp at their psyches’ pre-verbal expression of endless suffering, and when I stand on a hill looking over an amphitheater filled with the bruised spirits finally now limping out of crisis and chaos and pain to join together once again, I understand the Why a little better.

For me, Oedipus is about the relentless pursuit of Truth, despite knowing that what you discover could cost you everything. For me, there is no more foundational a story in Western art or society or even human nature than that. It is encoded within our culture; it is embedded within our values; it is the Fall of Man. You are self-aware. Which means you have a conscience. Therefore, you are responsible not only to yourself but to others. And you will suffer for this.

Aristotle called the titular character of Oedipus Rex the “perfect tragic hero,” I believe, because he like each of us is unable to look away from the truth that he is part of something much larger than himself. And in order to serve that much larger something, he must know himself in the most foundational of ways, even if it causes his own undoing. But at least now he knows.

And as we begin to make sense of the deep suffering we’ve all spent the last nearly-two years within — yes, perhaps while seated motionless and wordless at your desk at work — I think we could all use a reminder of that tragic, heroic thing burrowed within each of us. Why?

Just an instinct.

- Jake Penner