'The Gospel at Colonus'
After 17 years, Zach Theatre revives this spirited mix of soulful music and Greek tragedy
Fusing ancient Greek tragedy with 20th century American gospel music sounds as if it must be an ungodly mix – literally, at least on the Christian side of the union. And yet as director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson married the two in their 1985 collaboration The Gospel at Colonus, this odd couple fit together naturally, with the drama of Oedipus' death and redemption corresponding well to gospel's portrayal of life as a long journey fraught with hardships, but one in which repentance and forgiveness lead the way to salvation. Sophocles' play becomes a church service in which Oedipus' story functions like an Old Testament tale, narrated by a preacher with the commentary of the chorus sung by a choir. Telson and Breuer not only managed miraculously to preserve the integrity of the individual forms, but also to add a spiritual dimension to the struggle of these mythic characters and give modern playgoers a window into the catharsis experienced by theatre's earliest audiences. It was something rapturous to witness.
Just ask Zach Theatre Producing Artistic Director Dave Steakley, who saw the show during its brief Broadway run in 1988 and was so moved by it that he returned twice more before it closed. "So much theatre hits the head first," he told the Chronicle in a 1996 interview. "Here, the throughline was directly to the heart and soul. It was the most immediate response I'd ever felt." In the fall of '96, Steakley was able to provide that experience to Austinites through a much-lauded production at Zach. Both the B. Iden Payne Awards and Austin Critics Table showered the show with nominations – 16 from the former, 11 from the latter – and both entities named it the year's most outstanding musical production.
In these pages at the time, I called The Gospel at Colonus "the most exhilarating experience I've had in the theatre all year," and wrote that the wind of gospel music blows so sweetly through the show that, "hearing it, you feel as if you're standing on some holy mount, as near to glory as you can be and have your feet on earth. This is more than theatre; it is a celebration that elevates us and puts us in touch with something remarkable. It calls us to see redemption with new eyes and feel it with open hearts, and we do."
Now, 17 years later, the work that Steakley calls "my favorite piece of theatre" is coming back to Zach. The Gospel at Colonus begins performances on Wednesday, April 2, and plays through April 27 in the Topfer Theatre, and while the staging is new and in a new space, many of the performers from the 1996 production are returning, including Timothy Curry, reprising his role as Singer Oedipus; Janis Stinson, again playing Evangelist Antigone; Jacqui Cross as Singer Ismene; Felicia Dinwiddie as Evangelist Ismene; and Judy Arnold, Roderick Sanford, and Kenny Williams. And for those roles that he has had to recast, Steakley has turned to some familiar faces at Zach: Eugene Lee (God of Carnage, Dividing The Estate, The Book of Grace) for Preacher Oedipus, Michelle Alexander (Xanadu, In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play) as Singer Antigone, Mark Anthony Hall (Jelly's Last Jam, Smokey Joe's Cafe) as Theseus, and Billy Harden (Our Town, The Piano Lesson) as Creon. And Allen Robertson once again provides his award-winning music direction.
"This play is about coming home to restore a community at odds, with understanding and compassion, and ultimately, celebration," Steakley is quoted as saying. "It is the most meaningful experience of my Zach career." Come see why, and be prepared to rejoice.
The Gospel at Colonus runs April 2-27, Wed.-Sat., 7:30pm; Sun., 2:30pm, at Zach's Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar. For more information, call 512/476-0541 or visit www.zachtheatre.org.