‘Oedipus the King’ at Lean & Hungry Theater

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In an age of 24 hour cable news and social media saturation, the good ole’ fashioned radio play may seem like an artifact of a simpler time. But for Lean & Hungry Theater, a DC based company that partners with the local NPR affiliate, WAMU 88.5, to produce radio adaptations of Classic works, the radio play is very much alive. This past Sunday, I had the privilege of attending the live recording of Oedipus The King, an adaptation of the classic Greek tragedy. Oedipus The King is twice removed from Sophocles, presented first from a new English translation by Robert M. Gonzalez, and then adapted specifically for Lean & Hungry Theater by Kevin Finkelstein (who also directs) and Sybil Roberts. The latter adaptation sets Oedipus in Africa, and positions it as a parable used by a modern preacher (Duyen Washington) addressing her flock. The Chorus is personified by a gospel choir, played by a real choir that hails from St. Philip the Evangelist Episcopal Church in Anacostia.

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Half the fun of watching Oedipus The Kingwas the sheer novelty of watching a live radio play. Particularly interesting was the Foley Designer, Mehdi Raoufi, who makes satisfyingly grotesque use out of snapping celery, among other clever tricks. Lean & Hungry Theater in general, and Director Kevin Finkelstein in particular, deserve high praise for their decidedly retro choice of medium, as well as their imaginative re-contextualization of Oedipus Rex. Granted, there are instances where the creativity of their ideas outpaces the execution. For example, the best parts of the show are when the Chorus, led by the excellent soloists James Laws and Tami Hayes, sing their verses with soulful inspiration. But the infusion of Gospel style happens few and far between, too often replaced with monotonic renditions of the text. Likewise, the African-style percussion is a welcome addition to this adaptation that could be utilized more frequently to greater effect.

One advantage of radio theatre is that a cast of four actors can play eleven characters with a mere change of voice. A.J. Calbert, who plays Creon and three others, is particularly adept at these vocal acrobatics. Bill Newman, as Oedipus, and Jennifer L. Nelson as his wife/mother Jocasta, both deliver operatic renditions of the text with passion appropriate to the thee-ah-tah. I question whether some of the genuine emotion of Oedipus is lost in the verbosity, and I do think Lean & Hungry could jack up the realism without sacrificing the energy that they bring so well to Classical texts. That said, the gargantuan proportions of the tragedy of Oedipus are represented well by all four actors, including Duyen Washington, who, as a modern day pastor, is effective at putting the story in a modern context (even if the message of the story is a bit disheartening).

In a town where Classics are still king in the theatre world, Lean & Hungry has updated and packaged old plays in a unique and satisfying way. I hope their partnership with WAMU 88.5 continues, and expands to other radio stations around the country. They may not have reached the status of a Fireside Chat just yet, but if they continue to refine their productions, they may just compete with the Top 40.

Oedipus The King was performed by Lean & Hungry Theater at THEARC – 1901 Mississippi Ave. SE, in Washington, D.C. It broadcast Sunday, November 16, 2014 on WAMU 88.5