Anton’s Well Theater Company and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley are currently presenting the Bay Area premiere of A Particle of Dread: Oedipus Variations, Sam Shepard’s last play. A Particle of Dread, which was written in 2016, is based on the Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, involving King Oedipus’s prophesy that he will kill his father and marry his mother. The title is taken from a line spoken by the Chorus: “If the killer can feel a particle of dread / Your curse will bring him out of hiding.”
Shepard transforms the original Oedipus Rex into a modern American riff on fate and the nature of tragedy. In Shepard’s version, scenes that feature the ancient Greek characters alternate with similar contemporary scenes set in the U.S. Southwestern desert and feature similar modern characters. So, Oedipus and the modern Otto are both acted by the effective Clay David. Oedipus’ wife (and mother), Jocasta, is also called Jocelyn (Leticia Duarte), and Oedipus’ adversary (and true father) is split into three characters, Laius, Larry, and Langos (all played by Francisco Rodriguez). Instead of the Greek chorus, some modern scenes include two police officers (Amanda Artru and Bruce Avery) who use state-of-the-art methods to investigate the murder of Laius, Oedipus’ father. Don Wood succeeds in the roles of Oracle and the modern Uncle Del, as well as other parts.
The avant-garde wunderkind Shepard (1943-2017) wrote over 45 plays, more than 30 of which were produced in New York before he was 30 years old. His dramas are frequently set in empty, dusty places and concern lonely, solitary characters who may be members of difficult families. And although the plays are set in the American present, many have mythical aspects.
Shepard’s Buried Child won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and his earlier works typically outshine his later offerings. His last play, A Particle of Dread is neither a simple nor straightforward drama. In fact, a few sections are (dare I say it?) sphinxlike. There were instances when I just didn’t follow the plot and couldn’t keep up with who was who. Yet the fractured, dreamlike storyline ended with a dramatic finish.
The production’s venue is the Old Finnish Hall on 10th Street in Berkeley. It was built soon after the 1906 earthquake by the local Finnish community and has a cavernous auditorium, a community kitchen, and meeting rooms. It is now used as a cultural and community center. A Particle of Dread is presented on the floor of the auditorium, with about 30 folding chairs for seating.
Director Robert Estes displays a keen insight into the mind of Sam Shepard, and much time and effort have gone into this production. I applaud these two small but sophisticated theater companies in having the mettle to mount this challenging 105-minute, no-intermission production, especially considering that their resources are limited. We in Berkeley are fortunate to have companies such as Anton’s Well Theater Company and Actors Ensemble of Berkeley which, out of pure love of theater, present an array of cultural offerings at affordable prices.