Oedipus at FDR Skatepark–a Philly Fringe event

Post by Jacob Hellman

Notes from Oedipus at FDR
created by Emmanuelle Delpech-Ramey for Fringe Festival 2008

Cast bowing after performance of Oedipus at FDR Skatepark.  All photos in this post by Jacob Hellman.

Pig Iron, our forcefully creative theater company, has multiple presences at this year’s Fringe Festival.  Last night, I let my $25 ticket expire to their headliner, Sweet By-and-By, when a spare one surfaced to the free but long-sold-out Oedipus at FDREmmanuelle Delphech-Ramey, former Pig Iron member, has done here what classics are made for, and re-imagined an old play in the present.

By school bus and South Broad, we made our way to the FDR skatepark.  The long route left us wondering, is this part of the concept? We disembarked at dusk, the last bus, under the giant supports of I-95, where two hundred people milled amidst flaming trash cans, a mime on a soapbox, a tarot reader, and techno beats dampened by the whoosh of vehicles overhead.

When dark settled, we were ushered in, and seated ourselves on the concrete.  At each spot, a pair of big studio-style headphones, connected to repeater boxes in ganglia of wires.  Some donned them immediately.  I resisted, wanting instead the experience au naturel – to feel the breeze around my ears, and hear the “house” music, made muddy, as it ricocheted from the PA system throughout this giant site.   Anyway, the program explicitly compared the skate park in which we sat to a classical amphitheater – so why quash the intimacy of a briefly united public by isolating each with headphones?  This is concept killing experience, I thought – but I would be wrong.

Wrestling under I-95
Wrestling under I-95

Antigone enters, leading Oedipus from the far edge of the skate park, as if atop a mountain range.  Blind, clinging to the long, long tail of her stark red gown, he asks, “Tell me what you see here?”   With the intonation of classical drama, she answers: “In one direction a city; in the other, sea, ships, rail; overhead, a highway.”  Once these words were spoken, I began to get it:  this is a place unique in the built environment, an arena of sculpted concrete and faded graffiti, red lights projected on the steel girders above.  We are outdoors, and apart from the city proper.  That is why they bussed us so far.  Tonight, FDR skate park replaces Colonus as the refuge that Oedipus seeks.

More scenes from the play

And replacing Sophocles’ chorus is a chorus of five skaters, indigenous to the park, recruited for the show a full year ago.  At each interlude, they roll in, whizzing by the front row in sequence, and round out the amphitheater.  When exiled Oedipus reaches this alternate Colonus, the skaters encircle him like wolves, not willing to welcome a cursed man.  As non-actors, they succeed, especially as they chant the refrain, “Earth, water, air, and speed….”
Oedipus, nearing his life’s end, wishes to be buried at Colonus.  In time, King Theseus grants his plea.  The chorus’s leader, in a gesture of acceptance, steps forth and hands him a skateboard.  Surprisingly touching!  Now, his death immanent, Oedipus stands pale-faced, white hair blasted by light and wind, eye sockets bloody. [Grooming credited to Tracey Olkus.]  Blind, his head tilted upwards, he looks like a character of Beckett’s, stunned by existence.oedipus_triptych-1.jpg
Scene from the play

Despite some unpalatable choices (actors speak their lines over a soundtrack of techno beats), the performance is a feat of execution.  First of all, the team succeeded in moving a sizable audience to the periphery of the city.  And secondly, sound designer James Suggs conquered a harsh environment.  I took the headphones off once, to hear the real sounds of the skateboard wheels, but the voices were suddenly diminished, and the suspension of disbelief broken.  I put the question to Mr. Suggs – couldn’t you have used big speakers, to unite the voices and the space?  He shook his head, a bit grimly – “Too much white noise – we tried without headphones – you can’t have intimate moments in this place.”

You needn’t know Sophocles’ oevre to appreciate how this staging marks itself from the others.  As the director writes, “Actors and skaters don’t move the same way. Neither to Greeks and Thebians.”   As a resident of Philadelphia, I can only say that Oedipus at FDR manifests what’s most special about the Fringe Festival: innovative performance, deftly executed.   And by the grace of sponsors and mandate of Fairmount Park, it was free.

–Jacob Hellman is a Philadelphia artist and political activist. He last wrote for Artblog about Puppet Uprising and Peregrine’s Hidden City project.