The first thing you notice about the space is how much of it there is. Entering the bank lobby in Philadelphia’s Packard Building, the Wilma Theater’s inspired off-site venue for its current production of Oedipus the King (running through May 1), is like entering the Parthenon the scale and proportions of the architecture collude to produce a sense of awe that is both inspiring and humbling. Two rows of massive cream-colored marble columns flank the vast rectangular hall, supporting an intricately coffered 35-foot-high ceiling. The Ionic columns take the eye on a regal march down the 140-foot length of the room to the 30-step central staircase, which offers up an architectural invitation for a royal grand entrance.Order now
So what’s the Wilma, a small theatre with a reputation for intense intimacy, doing in a place like this? Greek tragedy, that’s what.
The gods wouldn’t fit
When co-artistic director Blanka Zizka started thinking about directing Oedipus after her father’s death two years ago, she knew the play, with its tragic hero, oracles, gods and chorus, could not be wedged into her 100-seat house on Sansom Street–or into the company’s normal four-week rehearsal period. “It was quite clear that I could not do it in that space,” she avows, “because of the claustrophobic ceiling–the gods would not fit in there.” Rather than scaling down her vision, Zizka decided to think big, allowing the hugeness of the play to encourage her and her staff into looking beyond the confines of standard production practices.
“I realized I wanted to create an event,” the director continues, “something special. We were taking a big risk, because yes, it costs a lot of money–but because of our excitement, we were also able to excite some funding sources.” The largest of several project-specific contributions, $50,000, came from the Philadelphia-based William Penn Foundation.
The hunt for an alternate space fit for the gods was the first and most arduous step. After considering and then rejecting some of the more traditional king-sized performance spaces in Philadelphia (such as the Great Hall at the University of the Arts where the People’s Light and Theatre Company presented Achilles last season), Wilma production manager Neil Kutner set about checking into the many empty buildings downtown. Last September he began a painstaking block-by-block hunt, noting down realtors’ numbers and making scores of phone calls.
As momentum at the Wilma started to build in favor of the Packard Building, its realtor at first seemed barely interested in any type of short-term rental, but Kutner’s persistent, low-key discussions convinced him of the potential publicity benefits. By the time the play closes, nearly 9,000 people will have spent several hours in his space, not only upstairs in the lobby, but downstairs where they will have visited the rest rooms and had a chance to tour the vault. Additional publicity will have been generated by the production through a city-wide series of seminars and lectures on Oedipus sponsored by a $47,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
After three months of steady negotiations, the Wilma was finally allowed to rent the bank for three months for the grand sum of $10. With the lease signed, the next priority became transforming the empty lobby into a theatre, an undertaking that would cost roughly $80,000. By a fortuitous turn of events, Jacob’s Pillow, the Massachusetts-based dance presenter, had been looking for a Philadelphia space for a series of concerts in May and signed on as partners in the project, contributing funds to help with the conversion. In addition to building wooden risers to accommodate 280 seats for the audience, a raised stage platform and lighting trusses had to be erected. Because the building itself is on the historic register, actual structural modifications were out of the question.
And then there was the problem of acoustics; in the cavernous, marble space, sound initially echoed for close to 10 seconds. A suggestion by business manager Lori Ott prompted the theatre to track down the fabric Ariane Mnouchkine hung in the Brooklyn Armory to improve acoustics for her Les Atrides. The search took them from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Canada–it seemed that BAM had borrowed the fabric from the Montreal Festival de Theatre des Amerigues, where the work had had its North American premiere. At a cost of $2,000, fifteen 20-foot-by-40-foot pieces of royal purple corduroy were shipped to Philadelphia and hung strategically along the walls.
When I arrive to visit a rehearsal in mid-March, three weeks before opening, the metamorphosis is remarkably complete. Extending from the base of the staircase, a high, sculptural wall the color of the lobby’s marble columns has been carved by set designer Andrei Efremoff with human-shaped depressions evoking Hiroshima or Pompeii–the petrified shadows of lives frozen in the instant of death. To the accompaniment of Adam Wernick’s percussive score, the chorus–an ethnically diverse group of eight men and women–speak-chants its opening lament in unison in front of this wailing wall of grief and loss: “Pain pain my sorrows have no sound / no name no word no pain like this / plague sears my people everywhere / … souls leaping away they fly / to the shore / of the cold god of evening.” Stephen Berg and Diskin Clay’s poetic, visceral Oxford University Press translation calls forth the rhythms of Wernick’s music and Zizka’s stylized choreography.
Finding additional rehearsal time to explore the chorus was a priority for Zizka, who created a special workshop in which the chorus members, all local actors, met once a week for eight weeks before the principal actors were brought in. The workshop also gave translator Berg, likewise a Philadelphian, the opportunity to hear text and music together and make numerous adjustments to the script.
The day of my visit, the principal actors and chorus are finally together on stage in the Packard Building for the first time. It also happens to be the Saturday of the Blizzard of ’93, and the sound of the wind roaring outside could be angry gods or the Furies. Scripts in hand, Olek Krupa and Ching Valdes-Aran, who play Oedipus and Jocasta, and Jerry Matz and Jack Davidson, who divide the other roles, sit on folding chairs at the base of a huge gold portal at the base of the staircase.
As the reading proceeds, Krupa begins to explore the cavernous space with his powerful voice, and the clarity of the sound testifies to the success of Mnouchkine’s drapes. It is as if the vastness of the space is exerting a natural force on the actors, demanding they make larger and larger choices. Zizka agrees that space and acting style are inextricably related: “The truths that we are looking for, the emotions and the passions and the specificity of the moments will have to be externalized your whole body has to live it, the gesture has to carry and connect to the space.”
When Kreon returns to Thebes with the oracle’s prophecy, he suggests to Oedipus they talk privately, inside the palace. Oedipus responds, “Stop. Say it. Say it to the whole city.” At this moment, space and character become one: Righteously convinced of his own innocence with regard to the plague’s cause, Oedipus refuses to allow the discussion to slip behind closed doors, demanding a public forum for his inquiry. The marble columns and coffered ceiling towering over Oedipus become an extension of this king, emblematic of his tragic stature and his unbudging insistence on keeping the action in the public eye. How fitting that his drama be played out in an American bank built in the 1920s, a time when our financiers and tycoons glorified their own self-importance through borrowing from classic Greek architecture–a time also just before a fall.