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A collaborative creation

By Roy Rodenstein

Presented by Dramashop

Directed by Brenda Cotto-Escalera

With Sean Austin '99, Carolyn Chen '02, Frederick Choi '02, Pinar Kip '02, Debora Lui '02, Mariaelena Mayorga, Rafael Medina, Matthew Norwood G, Julie Park '99, Andrea Zengion '99

Based on Sophocles’s Antigone and various other sources, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Dramashop’s Tiresias was a creative, entertaining departure from the usual theatrical format. Though directed by Brenda Cotto-Escalera, this workshop production was highly dependent on actors’ input and improvisational creation of individual scenes, as well as the overall structure. The results were very fresh and a success in almost all areas. After the show, the audience was encouraged to stay to ask questions and offer feedback, which are essential for exploratory, collaborative drama.

Tiresias is best known as a blind seer whose advice is ignored. Existing material is extensively referenced in the play, narrated by Tiresias as the old seer. Initially, Tiresias is a young boy under the tutelage of an expert fighter. While wandering in the forest one day, Tiresias comes upon two mating snakes and attacks them. For disturbing the circle of life, goddess Hera punishes him by transforming him into a girl. This sequence is vividly performed using large cloth sheets and having Tiresias flail inside them; this visual effect is resembling melting or morphing. When the sheets are pulled away, a young girl appears where the young boy was before.

A young boy, he was very happy with his tutor; but as a young female Tiresias quickly grows even closer to him, and soon bears his children. Once again, very creative deformations of stage space-time are used, such as employing bundles of cloth to represent babies and, in a flash, letting the babies transform into full-grown daughters. Tiresias undergoes further adventures, such as turning back into a man, suffering alienation from her husband and from her daughters, as well as another confrontation with Hera, before returning to her daughters and attempting to gain their understanding.

The play is full of interesting experimental touches. Small dances accompany some of the action, although, as one audience member mentioned, perhaps dance should have been either more emphasized or downplayed, as it seemed slightly out of place. However, as director Cotto-Escalera explained, it was certainly a different communicative channel, and as such it worked well to convey the mood at certain points in the action. Another excellent effect was when the aged Tiresias (Andrea Zengion), the omnipresent narrator, directly engaged in the action being narrated as a flashback device and expression of longing for the past.

Acting is another area where Tiresias was an unusual production. Each role was usually played by a different actor each time it recurred. This happened not only with age and gender changes, but even between scenes close to each other in the play. Although it took a little while to get used to, it was interesting to see actors’ differing takes on each character. At the question-and-answer session it was explained that this switching of actors for the same role was largely due to cast members’ having individually written scenes and thus holding ownership of the roles they created for each particular scene. In addition, the fragility of the notion of identity was another reason for this switching.

The program handed out was unfortunately light on information, lacking a list of references to Tiresias on which the performance was based and a list of characters played by each cast member. Fred Choi played Tiresias as a young boy in several scenes, including the enthusiastic scene of the first gender transformation. Zengion, as mentioned, played the narrator in the form of old Tiresias. Though in the framing portions her locution was quite plain, for the entire middle portion she was able to richly inhabit her character to strong dramatic effect.

The actions’ tone was usually dramatic, but there were several scenes of great humor. Among the best were those of Hera’s argument with Zeus, when Tiresias is requested to resolve the question. Hera is spoiled and disdainful of both poor Tiresias and Zeus himself. The audience laughed heartily at several other points, though some, such as scenes with sexual dialogue, may not have been intended to be humorous. Besides drama and humor, another affecting scene was that between Tiresias as a young woman and her playful daughters, where she convinces them to hear her tell a story and soothingly puts them to sleep.

The experimental format brought many rewards, but it also made the overall structure of the story problematic. Some references, such as the old seer being reviled by those who hear his candid foretellings, were taken directly from the source material (Antigone and Oedipus Rex, for example), but they were not referenced explicitly in any way, leading to slight confusion among audience members. Another shortcoming is simply that the performance did not shed that much new light on the issues of identity and sexuality. These are very complex unresolved topics, of course, which even major productions (such as the gender-switching movie Orlando) do not attempt to resolve, so this cannot seriously be held as the play’s fault. In any case, Tiresias delivered on its promise of fresh and interesting perspectives on identity and sexuality as well as being affectingly dramatic and humorous.

As a collaborative production, the cast and director of Tiresias took the audience feedback as suggestions for future exploration, and they may consider further refinement of this performance. According to the September issue of The Sciences (the magazine of the New York Academy of Sciences), hermaphrodites comprise 1 in 100 to 2000 births. Therefore, myths such as that of Tiresias do not seem so far-fetched, and the issues this production portrayed merit serious consideration.