Reprinted with permission from Update, July-August 2002 issue. Photos courtesy of Anton Juan.
Building the House of Oedipus
By Irwin Allen B. Rivera
Simple, barren and close to the Earth. This probably sums up the set design of Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas (DUP) Oedipus Rex the brainchild of a team-up between its director, Anthony M. Juan Jr. and production designer, College of Fine Arts Secretary, Leo Antonio Abaya.
Oedipus Rex, one of Sophocles master plays, was performed in ancient Greece when there were no complications like lighting, backdrops and movable structures. Keeping this in mind, Abaya completed his set in the Guerrero theatera circular structure with no distinguishable walls, simple and unobtrusive, as close to the conditions in which the original play was performed. The actors even walked on real sand.
It was Antons idea, Abaya said, who originally did not want sand, just constructed sets and a ramp. Juan however, opposed the idea, I want the actors to be connected to the Earth, he said. And connected to the barren and dry landscape mimicking ancient Greece they were. This could be seen in the lighting. Only white, no other color in the set, Abaya said. The costumes' drapery imitated from the ancient period, "no sewing" , Juan said. The chorus wore one continuous tube of cloth.
One whole rebulto of t-shirt that I asked my students to get into like a tunnel and then I bore holes for their faces, Oedipus director said. Juan envisioned the chorus as one long umbilical chord caught in the spiral of fate. This tied in with Abayas suggestion that the chorus be held together and move as one. Events in Oedipus Rex spiral down to Oedipus realization and acceptance of his fate; he had a hand in fulfilling the Oracles prophecy killing an old man at a crossroad (Laius, his father) and having children with Jocasta (his mother, the widow of Laius).
Unfolding side by side with events in the play is Abayas set configuration circular and simple, in keeping with the bare ancient Greek theater conditions; and inspired by his seeing the set as a scab. When you get wounded, something forms over the wound. As it heals, it flakes off, Abaya said. The sides of the set was meant to flake off, like dead skin, just as the truth is unraveled as the play comes to a close. The scab is a visual metaphor.
The other visual metaphor is the well which, at the same time, resembles both an eye and a vagina. There are two bloodstreams coming from the mountains into the eye. The environment is dry because of the crime Oedipus committed. The only time there will be water is when blood has been paid for, Juan said. he said.
Abaya and Juan worked on the concept of the womb (the well), the vagina, which, is also an eye, alluding to the incest between Oedipus and his mother, his being blind from the truth and his own self-blinding in the end. You either fertilize the eye or blind the vagina, Juan joked. When the play came to a point when incest was proven, blood came out of the well for it was now contaminated a bloodline incestuously tainted by the same bloodline.
Abaya credits the bareness effect which helped direct the audiences focus on the set to the black fabric. The fabric obscured the views on the wings of the Guerrero, such that when you look at the set, other than the scab there, it was all black, he said. The set design was much appreciated by the audience that after the performance, many approached the set and inspected it.
After the performance, many people approached the set to touch it and see what the material was made ofconcrete, by the wayso I imagine they found it palpable. But it wasnt so novel because if you take out the context of the play and put aliens there, the set could pass for a Martian landscape, he said.