Classics features reading of new play Oedipus in Jail

Gustavus Adolphus College often brings both well­ known and up ­and­ coming speakers, presentations, plays, and more to campus.

The most recent emerging piece of work that is being presented at the college on March 3 is a reading of ​Oedipus in Jail,​a play written by two British playwrights whose work in prisons in the U.K. inspired this play with a critical look at the justice system.

The play was brought to Gustavus by Professor Eric Dugdale of the Classics Department. He and Amy Seham, professor of Theatre and Dance and Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies, are collaborating to present the reading. The play is being cast by invitation by Seham.

“Although set in the U.K. and written by two British playwrights who have done extensive work teaching in U.K. prisons, the play is highly topical here in the U.S. given the fact that we have the highest incarceration numbers in the world,” Dugdale said. “This play examines the impact that a father’s absence can have on his son. Oedipus in Jail is the perfect liberal arts play, of interest to students of sociology, political science, psychology, theater and classics.”

Michael Crowley and Julian Armistead, the playwrights, have spent years working in prisons in the U.K. In 2013, the two got in contact with the idea of adapting the Greek classic play and myth of Oedipus into a contemporary play based onthe lives of male prisoners.

The cast includes a teacher character who is helping the prisoners get ready to re­-enter the outside world.

The creators would ideally like to see ​Oedipus in Jail ​performed in a prison. It uses drama to attempt to cause inmates to ask questions of themselves and to prompt change.

“The play involves an attempt by the teacher and the prisoners themselves to break the cycle of criminality,” Crowley said.

Will Riihiluoma, a Junior Physics major with a Classics minor, read the script and described it as intense and riveting.

“It felt very real,” Riihiluoma said. “No doubt a consequence of the playwrights’ involvement with inmates in the process.”

“This play does a powerful job of portraying how inescapable and unavoidable the process of imprisonment and seeking parole is, and how futile and difficult it can seem from the inside to ever get out on parole.” – Will Riihiluoma

The play calls for a five-­person cast with a total of six characters. The single female actress portrays two characters. Crowley and Armistead recently appointed Olwen May as the director of the show. They are hoping to have it showing in the U.K. by the end of 2016.

“​Oedipus in Jail​, like Sophocles’ play before it, challenges the great myth of the self­made man who is the hero of his destiny,” Dugdale said. “But you don’t need to know the myth of Oedipus to enjoy it, though those who do will appreciate a fourth dimension to this play, in which the characters tread in the twisted footsteps of an ancient story.”

The phrase “twisted” is used often throughout the play. The show was originally titled ​‘Twisted Up’ ​but the playwrights chose to go with ​Oedipus in Jail​ because the term “Oedipus” draws in audience members. But despite the title, Oedipus is not mentioned once during the whole show.

Crowley and Armistead read through the script with the prisoners they were working with. The prisoners gave them feedback and helped them make the play more authentic.

“My favorite part of creating ​Oedipus in Jail​ was the prisoner interaction and their help,” Crowley said. “I love to hear their contribution, they don’t have any hesitation. I can’t explain how great it was.”

“I love theatre and adore classical adaptations, especially when there’s a strong message to be relayed,” Riihiluoma said. “This play does a powerful job of portraying how inescapable and unavoidable the process of imprisonment and seeking parole is, and how futile and difficult it can seem from the inside to ever get out on parole. I’m very excited to see it.”

Free and open to the public, the reading will be presented on Thursday, March 3 at 3 p.m. in The Dive with a video chat and Q&A session with the playwrights afterward.