nytheatre.com review by Jeffrey Lewonczyk
February 18, 2005
Poor Yokasta. Not only does she give up her crippled infant son for dead, only to have him return as an adult, kill her husband, and marry her himself (the discovery of which causes him to gouge his eyes out)—to top it all off, the progenitress of the world's most famous Complex doesn't even have a tragedy to call her own. Even in the Oedipus cycle, Sophocles's famous group of plays about her lover/son, she's reduced to wandering on- and offstage, delivering portentous exposition that bears little regard for her monumental role in this timeless tragedy.
In YokastaS Redux, playwright Saviana Stanescu and seminal avant-garde director Richard Schechner have decided to redress this grievance on Yokasta's behalf, attempting to provide her with a work befitting her stature. Though it doesn't have the weight and power of actual Greek tragedy (nor, for the most part, does it wish to), it succeeds touchingly and entertainingly in bringing a hitherto neglected matriarch into a much-deserved spotlight.
The title is plural to reflect the fact that there are four Yokastas. In ascending chronological these are: Yoyo, her hyperactive, imaginative childhood self; Yoko, “the middle one,” a defiant young queen married to the limping, lecherous Laius (Oedipus's dad); Yono, the contented, perpetually pregnant bride of Oedipus; and Yokasta herself, the hardened survivor of the post-Oedipal years.
But wait, you culture-savvy classicists protest—what later years? Didn't Yokasta do herself in after the incestuous secret was revealed? It is exactly this kind of misinformation that Yokasta is appearing on this program to set straight. The first scene of the play, you see, and many others, are modeled on a talk-show format, in which Yokasta is questioned on her personal life by a well-groomed interlocutor who gently but firmly pries into the darker recesses of Yokasta's past.
When I first read in the press materials that several of the play's scenes would take place on talk shows, I feared that the script would overreach in its attempts to maintain contemporary relevance. To my relief, the scenes are played lightly and gracefully, less as a parody of TV culture than as a contemporary rhetorical vessel for the distilled conveyance of essential information. It helps that the performers in these scenes (and throughout the entire production) are top-notch: Christopher Logan Healy (who plays all the men in the show—TV hosts, the touchingly hopeless Laius, and Oedipus himself) is fatuous without resorting to broad satire, his polished performance style and expert timing putting the humor over with infectious ease; and Daphne Gaines, who anchors the whole show as Yokasta, has dignity, authority, and style to spare.
The interview scenes (including a hilarious one in which Medea and Phaedre attempt to embroil Yokasta in a smackdown for the title of World's Worst Mama) pepper a series of more straightforward, but often equally funny, scenes depicting the narrative of Yokasta's life. Young Yoyo (Jennifer Lim), playing with action figures, charts out her future as Queen of the Universe despite being told to respect the workings of fate. Laius and Yoko (the fiery Phyllis Johnson) attempt to reinvigorate their marriage with some sexual role-playing. An alarming monologue delivered by Yono (Rachel Bowditch) in the voice of the child-drowning Andrea Yates is provided with a wryly disturbing multimedia reflection later on in a comic slideshow of Yono sensuously bathing her new husband-to-be soon after the inadvertent murder of his father.
Throughout, Stanescu and Schechner's language (they're co-credited with the script) avoids the pitfalls of modern writers aspiring to the Greeks: it manages to be poetic without pretension, affecting but not affected. The multiple Yokastas combine, retreat, squabble, and bond over the course of the fractured narrative; Schechner's direction, admirably crisp at every turn, prevents the various viewpoints from ever threatening to muddle.
At the denouement, the traditional bloody catharsis of Greek tragedy is intentionally sidestepped to reflect something trickier and less satisfying to dramatize: continuance. By denying previous reports of her suicide, Yokasta has preempted our thirst for purging, finality, and the settling of scores; she refutes the terrors and inevitable destinies of the ancient world with the modern values of forgiveness, survival, and self-reliance. The result is a play about Greek tragedy that isn't completely depressing.Maybe Yokasta doesn't have it so bad after all.