‘Oedipus Rex’ reading kicks off Centenary Stage Co.’s ‘What Is Truth?’ series

Oedipus reading

Anne Occhiogrosso and Randall Duk Kim.

Partly as a response to living through a time in history when truth itself is under siege, the Centenary Stage Company is presenting a series called “What Is Truth? And Does It Matter?” It begins with a free staged reading of — and discussion about — Sophocles’ classic tragedy “Oedipus Rex” at the Kutz Theatre at the Lackland Performing Arts Center in Hackettstown Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Master classes have already been presented in anticipation of the readings, but are not mandatory.

Future installments of “What Is Truth?,” which is part of the Gates Ferry Lecture Series, will include a staged reading of scenes from Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” Nov. 14 at Lackland’s Sitnik Theatre, and a full production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People from Feb. 15 to March 3 at the Sitnik Theatre. The “King Lear” reading will be preceded by a TedX Talk on the subject of “What Is Truth? And Does It Matter?” For more information, visit centenarystageco.org.

The series was conceived and is being led by Randall Duk Kim and Anne Occhiogrosso, who are married, and who have both taught at Centenary University and taken part in Centenary Stage Company productions (in February and March, Kim co-starred in CSC’s “Art,” which was directed by Occhiogrosso).

I recently talked to both of them, by phone, about the series:

Q: I have some idea of what this series is about, but why don’t you, first, just give me an overview, in your words?

Kim: Annie and I, given the state of things in the nation and in the world, were pondering the question of what it is the theater can possibly contribute, that could be positive in facilitating conversation about truth, and whether or not it matters. For Annie and I, of course, it does matter. But we felt that perhaps the theater can contribute in initiating conversation, if some of the greatest plays ever written were given a hearing, to start people thinking about the issue.

So we chose three plays. The first one is Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” a 2,500-year-old play that deals with the subject of a man who wants to find the truth. The second play is “King Lear” and, of course, that play has to do with an old man who pretty much rejects the truth, in the person of his youngest daughter, and what results from that. The third play is Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which will probably be much more identifiable with our modern audiences, but that deals with the issue of truth, also.

Q: And the events will combine the readings with conversation?

Kim: Yes. Annie and I are looking forward to the discussions after the readings. The readings are there, simply, to initiate the conversation. To spark off thought about it. And to get the public talking about it.

Occhiogrosso: I think, too, because right now we are all so focused, in this digital age, on the palm of our hand and our own time … there’s no time but our own time right now … and we thought, “Let’s look back 2,500 years, and see if we can see something of ourselves in these plays.”

We were first asked by the University of Wisconsin. They wanted to bring us there to hold talks and do theater, and they said, “Come up with a big idea.” And Randy, off the cuff, said, “What is truth? And does it matter?” And we laughed at first. We’re thinking, “Oh my God, Randy, you have to be out of your mind. We’re actors.”

But the funny thing was … and this was almost two years ago … every day, that word comes up, whether it’s just recently, Mayor Giuliani saying truth is not truth, or you hear people talking about alternative facts. The word, “Truth,” seems to permeate our lives right now. And I don’t know that we — and I’d have to include us in this — have a really good notion of, “What is truth.” We all have opinions about it.

So I said, “Let’s go back to Sophocles, and see what he and the Greeks thought about truth.” That’s how the project initiated. And let me tell you, it’s one of the most thrilling journeys Randy and I have ever been on. We first thought the most difficult question would be, “What is truth?,” only to find out that the hard question is, “Does it matter?” Because pursuing it is not an easy task. There’s no fun at the end of the game here. All of the people, in fact, suffer. But in the midst of that suffering, they make a conscious decision to look for the truth.

So I think, if nothing else, the conversation will really have people looking in their own personal mirror to see, “What does truth mean to me, and am I willing to die for it? Am I willing to stand up for it? Am I willing to sacrifice everything I have for it?” Because you know what? The truth is the truth, whether you have an opinion about it or not. That’s the nature of it.

Q: What’s going to happen at the workshops leading up to the readings?

Kim: It’s primarily to take those who are interested into the plays themselves. And to do some preparation for the eventual readings.

Occhiogrosso: They’re open to the public, and free. Theater students are participating, and students of other disciplines. We’ll go through each play and find different ways for the participants to participate in the evenings’ reading.

Kim: But also to begin talking about how this play relates to the issue of truth. I think one of the things that guides me in all of this, too, is … Plato had a notion, a metaphor, for our human condition. And the notion was this: We are chained in a cave, in such a way that we can only face the back wall of the cave, on which we see these shadows. And these shadows, we mistake for reality. Once in a blue moon, one of us escapes and manages to unchain him- or herself and get to the entrance of the cave. At first he’s blinded by the light out there, but eventually his eyes get accustomed, and he begins, or she begins to see reality as it is. Having experienced that, that individual goes back into the cave to try to communicate what it is he or she saw out there. And of course, he’s mocked, she’s mocked, or even killed.

That was Plato’s way of thinking about who we are, as human beings, and the impact of that story has resonance in me. It’s almost as if he were describing our own time. There we are, mistaking shadow for reality, and not really grappling with what really is outside of our caves.

Occhiogrosso: That said, also it’s important to know that because Randy and I are members of the theater, that our approach to this work has to do with acting and directing and investigating these plays, in terms of how they would have been put on, for the public. We’re not philosophers. We’re not scholars. We’re curious theater people who believe that inherent in these plays, and the art of theater, that it’s almost easier to discuss the issue of truth, because you see men and women living out their lives onstage.

It’s not a matter of scholarly research, per se, it’s seeing Oedipus meet his fate, or Dr. Stockmann standing up for the truth, or King Lear … these are representatives of ourselves. It’s like looking into a mirror. And I think that’s what makes the exploration particularly exciting.

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