THEATER | "The Gospel at Colonus": A Minnesota miracle

Photo courtesy Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

I attended Thursday night's performance of The Gospel at Colonus with my aunt, and she had a clear idea of who the show's villains were: not Creon or Polyneices, but set designer Alison Yerxa and video projection designer Adam Larsen. I wasn't quite as distracted by the Liberace-esque shiny purple cloth covering the white piano at stage right, or the giant Oedipus heads that climactically beamed down at the ensemble like the Wizard of Oz crossed with Kim Jong-il, but I also thought that questioning the production's taste was kind of beside the point—like asking your grandma if she's really going to wear that hat to church, or telling Hercules not to wear socks with sandals.

Heaven knows (and so does Olympus), The Gospel at Colonus has enough taste. It was on PBS, for Zeus's sake! Creators Lee Breuer and Bob Telson have justifiably reaped decades of acclaim for taking a premise that sounds like a movie pitch in a satire about Hollywood producers ("It's Sophocles gone gospel! Can we get one of the Blind Boys of Alabama to be Oedipus? Take a memo.") and turning it into a moving reflection on joy, regret, and the universal human condition.

the gospel at colonus, presented through august 11 at the ordway center for the performing arts. for information and tickets ($27-$80), see ordway.org

It's tempting to say that it would be impossible to go wrong with a show featuring the Steeles, the Legendary Soul Stirrers, and the Blind Boys of Alabama, but great talent is squandered all the time. (Case in point: my Thursday evening warm-up, Kathy Jensen is Pretty.) What makes The Gospel at Colonus work so well is that it has genuine faith in its premise and almost miraculously avoids any cheap laughs or easy outs. I won't claim great familiarity with the conventions of either gospel preaching or classical drama, but the chief signposts of both are widely known, and Breuer (book, stage direction) and Telson (music composition and direction) wrap the two together in an intricate manner that's clear and revealing, but never obvious.

There's kind of a plot, but the specifics aren't really the point. We learn what we need to know about the history of Oedipus (played collectively by the Blind Boys of Alabama) and the circumstances that led up to his arrival at Colonus, where he must face its ruler Theseus (Dion Graham) and make peace—or not—with his children, who are also, awkwardly, his siblings. I was too wrapped up in the action to take notice at the time, but in retrospect, the signal moment when one might have known that the show was doing things absolutely right was when the nature of Oedipus's shame—he killed his father and married his mother—was revealed. As intoned with gravity and passion, a situation that's been a pop-culture joke for millennia seems absolutely tragic, and, despite the story's nontraditional setting, not the least bit funny.

But really, who would laugh at these incredible performers? They invite you to laugh with them a few times, but though Breuer and Telson wisely don't lean on the performers' gravity, their show certainly benefits from it. There really aren't many performers on Earth, in any tradition, who can call upon such reserves of feeling and respect as these men and women—and when they open their mouths, the notion that they've had dealings with God, or the gods, seems completely credible.

The premise for The Gospel at Colonus would seem to make it the ideal show for our multicultural, postmodern age—and it is, all the more so for engaging its twin traditions so seriously. We are reminded that the traditions of classical Greek drama and modern gospel preaching were themselves both born from multicultural mixing—European traditions met African traditions in Athens, Greece long before that happened in Athens, Georgia—and that whoever's doing the preaching, whatever color his skin (or sequined piano cover) is, we all understand sin, and we all understand redemption.

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    Jay Gabler's picture
    Jay Gabler

    Jay Gabler (@JayGabler) is a digital producer at The Current and Classical MPR.