Ancient Greek plays are constantly getting makeovers – modern interpretations are probably more common, at least on American stages, than versions that follow the original Greek format, with a chorus and all that. Oedipus at Palm Springs is, needless to say, another adaptation – but after you see this one you won’t be able to watch a Greek tragedy or think about the Oedipus myth (especially in the Freudian context) in the same way ever again.
The Five Lesbian Brothers, which is the group that wrote and performs in this production, formed as a group in 1989 and have performed over the years here and on wide tours to much acclaim. They haven’t done anything together since 1998 or so, and this reunion performance is aglow with their pleasure at being on stage with one another again. Lisa Kron and Maureen Angelos play Con and Fran, who have been partners for over 25 years and recently had a child. Just as many straight people find happens, the pair’s sex life has gone down the tubes in a big way. Meanwhile, Prin and Terri (played by Dominique Dibbell and Peg Healey) have a great sex life – Terri is young and beautiful, Prin aging but still vital and hungry for sex. The couples are longtime friends, and they meet up at a Palm Springs resort manned by Joni (the hilariously deadpan Babs Davy), a blind sage who “reads” fortunes from people’s car keys. The purpose of the trip for Con and Fran, aside from seeing their friends, is to reconnect physically; meanwhile it’s Terri’s birthday and she’s preoccupied with her search for her birth mother. Both these efforts take the plot in directions it’s safe to say the characters, much less the audience, could never have anticipated.
Overall the acting is very good, though at times the hiatus they’ve had from performing together shows and their interactions are less smooth. Kron stands out as sex-starved Con, who is consumed by a simultaneous frustration with Fran and jealousy of her special relationship with their son and her continuing love for Fran and desire for her. Angelos, by comparison, seems a tad unnatural as Fran; even though the character is supposed to be a little weird because of her obsession with her son, she still just seems awkward somehow. Dibbell and Healey have excellent chemistry as insatiable lovers, though it’s a little hard to see the age gap that’s supposed to separate them, which causes some cognitive dissonance issues for the viewer later, even more than the script would cause anyway.
The Brothers are known for their playful subverting of stereotypes about gender roles, particularly in the context of homosexual relationships (naturally). In this play it doesn’t seem at first that they’re continuing in that vein: at one point one of the characters says she doesn’t believe in the butch/femme divide that’s always forced on lesbians, but the two couples are as obvious a set of representations of that divide as can be, with Prin and Fran golfing and grilling and Terri and Con shopping and obsessing about their bodies. The subversion, when it does come, is both somewhat less obvious than in their other work, and certainly less comedic – which is not to say that the play isn’t quite funny, because it is. But to get their serious point across here, rather than making stereotypes into a goofy joke they act them out meaningfully, but undermine them in clever ways that are likely to be quite distinct from any way you’ve seen gender and sex messed with before. It’s not a play for anyone who’s squeamy about that sort of thing, but then the troupe’s name should give that away immediately in any case. But if you’re interested in seeing how far a play can be taken from its Greek origins while still drawing from them, or similarly how far a “gay/lesbian issues” play can be from others in its category, then you’ll be quite taken with this provocative show.
Details: Oedipus at Palm Springs is at New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., through August 28. Shows are Tues. & Sun. at 7pm, Wed.-Sat. at 8pm, Sat. & Sun. at 3pm. Tickets online via Telecharge.