Stephen Spotswood’s new play We Tiresias is not so much a retelling of the blind seer myth as it is a total refiguring. Using three actors to portray different phases in the prophetic Theban’s long life, Spotswood casts aside the original story’s interesting bits, subbing in an I-don’t-understand-my-powers coming of age story that feels more like “X-Men” than Oedipus.
As the show begins, it looks like Spotswood has brought the Greek myth up to date. There’s two modern-looking tables, three bar stools, and a glass of wine onstage. First, an Old Man (Steve Beall) enters, wielding a standard-issue red and white blind man’s cane. He’s also got a stainless steel hip flask. Next come a woman (Melissa Marie Hmelnicky) and a boy (Chris Stinson). He’s wearing a suit and tie, and she’s sporting a punky tank top. Together, it becomes evident, they represent Tiresias at different times in his life, and they resolve to tell the audience their story. The old man is reluctant at first, but he’s soon won over by his younger selves.
The story they tell, however, suffers from temporal indecision. For the most part, we’re in the classical Greece of Zeus and Olympus, albeit with contemporary curses (“Hera’s just a bitch”). There’s talk of gods and drachmas, and Tiresias alludes to Dante, saying he’ll come centuries later. Tiresias’ adolescence, however, is spent mystifyingly on a turnip farm whose owner whines with a poor approximation of a Southern accent. Then he’s back in the Greece of myth, consulting with Oedipus. There’s never an apparent connection between the plot’s classicism and the costumes’ contemporaneity, not to mention the gritty country rock played at the show’s start.
The actual story, too, is frustratingly split between the original Greek myth and a vaguely-defined world of Spotswood’s invention. As a character, Tiresias is a compendium of many different stories. He’s most famous from his advisory involvement in the Oedipus cycle, but he appears also in Ovid, Aeschylus, and other frequently-sculpted greats. The common elements are his blindness (inflicted by the gods, angry that he gives away their secrets) and his androgyny (usually told as a punishment for striking mating snakes with his stick).
Spotswood sets out to unify these different accounts and add some human interest. It’s an admirable aim, but in the process, he gets carried away with his own originality. In this telling, Tiresias is born with the gift of prophecy, rather than being granted it by a god. Against religious rules, he seduces a priest of Hera by impressing her with his gift. It gets him into trouble, though, when he foresees the punishment she’ll suffer for breaking her vows. He flees and begins touring with a traveling fraud, who uses Tiresias’s powers to make money. Then, the temple maiden shows back up and castrates him (which somehow makes him a woman—this segment isn’t well developed).
As a woman, he shacks up with a bandit king, who gives him a daughter. The bandit king is killed for his crimes, and his killers leave Tiresias alive, but take his (for the moment, her) daughter away. Upset with the sorrow his gifts have led him to, Tiresias pulls out his own eyes. The rest of the story veers into a fist-shaking climax of melodramatic oaths such as, “All I have is the present,” and “Here’s the future: everyone dies.”
Overall, We Tiresias could use some pruning. It’s not that Spotswood hasn’t hit on something good here; it’s that, in this incarnation, there’s too much. The original myths supply an already hefty amount of plot material, so inventing more and importing Oedipus’ grisliest bits isn’t a logical move. The show is best at moments where it achieves a bare, confidential manner. At one point, the old Tiresias tells the audience that he has a “3 a.m. phone call kind of voice.” It’s a good line, and it’s a suitable ambassador for the show’s ambitions—to weave disparate myths into a unified account where Tiresias, often a side character or archetype, is given a chance to speak for himself.
Unencumbered by an overworked plot, the prophet’s voice is rich, and the idea of three actors sharing the story is a clever move, given the breadth of Tiresias’ experience. Spotswood just should have more confidence in his own voice and its power to add new texture to an old story. His descriptions of how Tiresias sees omens are beautiful and add new richness to the myth. It’s in reinventing the whole story that the show goes astray, stepping on some pretty solidly canonized toes in the process.
We Tiresias is an exciting step in the right direction by a DC playwright, and it’s a fun take on a Greek myth. The show has its fair share of ingenious moments and a great deal of originality, but it has some kinks to work out and shouldn’t top lists for Fringe-goers with limited schedules.
We Tiresias has 5 performances, ending July 29, 2012, at The Shop at Fort Fringe, 609 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC.
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Robert rates this 3 out of a possible 5.