„The stage occupied the usual sandy circle in the middle of the amphitheatre, but just off-center in the playing area stood the enormous head of a classic-looking Greek sculpture. This visual image of the play’s cultural context served sometimes as a skene, representing the palace of Thebes, with actors entering and emerging from the side or the top; it also provided extensions of the chorus’ playing area, as it was bracketed by ladders that could elevate a speaker. During the messenger’s description of the offstage blinding of Oedipus, the eyes of the sculpture dripped red blood. This literalizing of a narrated action was a hallmark of the show, as the director repeatedly took offstage actions, antecedent events, or eventual consequences and made them physically present.
Spectators saw this process of literalization from the moment of entering the theatre. The playing space in front of the sculptural head was littered with dead animals and shrouded bodies, a reminder that the play begins with the people of Thebes suffering terribly from plague and famine. Before any of the speaking characters appeared, a group of slow-moving actors, clad in black rags, crawled across the stage, lamenting their losses in wordless, heart-wrenching moans. The opening speeches of the play were thus enacted before they happened, a visual rendition of the sorrows and fears that the chorus leader would soon enumerate for Oedipus. We attendees became viscerally aware of the despair in the kingdom before a word was spoken.
The chorus was often a key component of this visually amplified emotion. Clad in black cassocks, their heads bald and their facial features rendered indistinguishable, they frequently enacted the dire situations of the kingdom and the people. One notable moment came during the choral ode regarding the blindness of mere mortals to the consequences of their actions. As Oedipus and his family retreated inside the palace to contemplate the horrific reality gradually dawning on them, the chorus members donned white blindfolds and stumbled across the stage, whirling sightlessly in circles. We know that the choral odes in ancient performances most likely involved dance as well as chanting, but this beautifully choreographed ballet of blindman’s bluff suggested the whirlwind of emotions buffeting the hapless characters. The expressive power of this scene was further enhanced when the messenger entered from the palace to recount the blinding of Oedipus. In front of the bleeding sculptural head, the actor playing the messenger groveled on the ground during the speech, screaming as he enacted on his own body the dreadful blinding he had just witnessed, thereby bringing the Greeks’ well-established offstage violence onto center stage. His voice and actions were amplified by another choral “dance” as the chorus members wheeled and recoiled in shock and revulsion.
The single most powerful dramatic innovation, however, was the director’s addition of a new character, called in the playbill “Spettro della Sfinge” (Specter of the Sphinx). Played by Melania Giglio, this female figure with a winged leather cape and long dreadlocks opened the play by rising from the top of the Greek head, shrieking wordlessly, spreading her wings and startlingly red hands. Given that all the characters were clad entirely in black, her red palms seemed to shriek along with her, prefiguring the blood on Oedipus in the final scenes and the red stains that would appear on the sculpture.
In this opening segment she indeed did seem to be a Sphinx figure, and I thought at first that the director had chosen to present some of the backstory in which Oedipus had solved the Sphinx’s riddle and won the crown of Thebes. However, after this entrance, she disappeared, returning later masked in brilliant white—another startling shift in color—as the boy who led in the blind Tiresias. From this point on, the figure (now unmasked and uncaped, clad in black leather) shadowed Oedipus, dancing menacingly around him, accompanied by her own chorus of similarly black-clad, faceless, stringy-haired dancers. These fury-like figures, stalking Oedipus’s every move and clearly representing his unavoidable, horrible fate, were visible to the audience at all times though unnoticed by the characters, thus providing a new visual twist on dramatic irony.
At the end of the play, when the action had concluded and blind Oedipus was led away, the Spettro della Sfinge returned at the top of the stage, wings fully spread, shrieking a climactic “song.”
Here, she seemed to have morphed from Sphinx, to fury/fate, to deus ex machina; this “god,” however, descended not to save someone, but rather to remind us all of the inevitability of fate and the repercussions of our actions.”