At least a passing knowledge of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex should be required before seeing Sam Shepard's A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations) at the Pershing Square Signature Center. If you don't know this ancient yarn, the new 85-minute drama, featuring a mixed company of Irish and American actors, will leave you pretty confused. Then again, if you are familiar with that Greek tragedy, chances are you'll be a bit puzzled by this alternately brilliant and mindboggling take, which is directed by frequent Shepard collaborator Nancy Meckler.
"Variations" is the imperative word here. Like jazz music, Shepard starts with a theme — in this case, the tale of the man who kills his father, inadvertently marries his mother, and gouges out his eyes in despair — and then riffs on it for a while. There are a series of interconnected plots, put together in the jagged-edged fashion of someone trying to reassemble a glass vase that fell off a shelf and shattered into a million little shards. A police officer and a forensic investigator (Jason Kolotouros and Matthew Rauch) attempt to solve a crime scene involving three dead bodies on the side of the road, some tire tracks, and a lopsided pair of footprints. An elderly paraplegic (Stephen Rea) tries to put this story together himself, to the chagrin of his wife (Brid Brennan), and grown daughter (Judith Roddy), who has significant problems of her own. And then there's Oedipus himself (Rea again), whose storyline follows the Sophocles pretty faithfully.
Oedipus Rex in the Mojave Desert circa 2014 is a mightily intriguing concept, especially in Shepard's hands. In his inimitable, thrilling fashion, he constructs vivid characters in the barren, Beckettian landscape of the Midwest who ache to escape their environments but simply cannot. However, with three stories being told at once, certain cast members doubling and tripling in roles, and dialects alternating between Irish and American Southern, a crucial disconnect between text and production arises. Any equation Shepard is trying to make between contemporary life and ancient Greek circumstances becomes so muddled in accents and plots that you almost lose interest out of frustration.
The physical production of Meckler's staging doesn't help. For no apparent reason, scenic designer Frank Conway sets the action within a mental ward's sterile confines. Lorna Marie Mugan's costumes are relatively unplaceable in terms of time period. Fortunately, Michael Chybowski's lighting evokes the sandy landscape of Shepard's locale, as does Neil Martin's twangy original musical score, played live by Martin (on cello) and Todd Livingston (on dobro slide guitar).
But Meckler has assembled a very robust acting company, which also includes a terrifying Lloyd Hutchinson as blind soothsayer Tiresias (and two other characters in the same vein) and Aidan Redmond as the spiffy mafioso whose death precipitates the action. With the leading role carried by the scarily calm Rea (who first presented the play at his Ireland-based company Field Day), A Particle of Dread can hypnotize you. That is, if you can figure out what's happening.