Joanna Chan, Artistic Director
Business office:
153 Centre Street, Suite 207
New York, NY 10013
Phone: 914-941-7575
Fax: 914-923-0733
joannawychan@juno.com










Caribbean Life.Brooklyn/Staten Island/Dec. 6, 2006/p. 52


AN UNLIKELY VENUE, MASTERFUL PERFORMANCES
"Oedipus Rex," on stage live from Sing Sing
One of the most impressive aspects of the performance of Nov. 10 is that the inmates would take on such a heady classic as "Oedipus Rex."

By Michael Millius

You might think I'd have seen some great theater over the years with my aunt, Michael Strange being married to John Barrymore, or my work with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber as creative director of MCA Music. But still, even after all that, and more than half a century of theatergoing, I was not prepared for the experience of seeing a performance of "Oedipus Rex" by inmates at Sing Sing Prison.


When written by Sophocles circa 430 B.C. (and considered by the ancient Greeks to be his best work), the author couldn't have imagined how his play would enjoy one of its finest hours 2,500 years later, being rendered by inmates in a maximum-security prison.


The production was one of many over the last nine years done under the auspices of a very important and deserves-to-be better-known organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. RTA was founded in 1996 by Katonah resident Katherine Vockins and her husband, Hans D. Hallundbaek, who with successful business backgrounds in international marketing and project management, applied their talents and spiritual sensibility to create this nationally acclaimed program. Mr. Hallundbaek also pastors at a small Presbyterian church in Croton Falls.


RTA was initiated at the Sing Sing maximum-security prison to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of higher education and enrichment programs from the New York State prison system. Starting with its first production, "Reality in Motion," in 1997, the program immediately created a safe space for the growth and transformation of prisoners through participation in theater arts. RTA proved that the use of dramatic techniques led to significant improvements in the cognitive behavior of the program's participants inside prison and a reduction in recidivism once paroled. What amazed psychologists and behavioral academia in this much-studied program is that through this simple use of theater arts on a grassroots level, prisoners develop skills for leadership, a sense of community in respecting themselves and others, and establish a sense of achievement, which in the often brutal and harsh prison environment are precious and rare experiences.


One of the most impressive aspects of the performance of Nov. 10 is that the inmates would take on such a heady classic as "Oedipus Rex." Not a piece for the fainthearted, but then "heart" was the operative word and emotion in this production, that is, heart and talent. The kind of heart and talent that surrounds fear and hate and forces them to surrender.


First on stage was Clarence Maclin, who brought to his portrayal of Oedipus the necessary power and fragility for the character's journey from mysterious stranger to ruler, to death by his own hand in the abysmal hell of self-loathing. Mr. Maclin's deep, wide talent and encompassing but patient presence onstage was a much-appreciated gift to this classic role.


Supporters in the bellwether chorus included Jermain Cross, Charles Grasso, Shepard Jackson, James Jones, Briean Labrosse, Gerald O'Brien, Dario Pena, Richare Valle, and James E. Williams, who as an ensemble accomplished a rare experience for any group of humanity on- or off-stage: in the midst of a mass they established themselves an individuals, to such a degree that it became almost hypnotic watching this chorus, as, while expressing the same emotion, you were still drawn to observe each actor projecting his own individual but harmonious interpretation.


Stepping out of the chorus in the role of the Priest was the tall, commanding Brian Labrosse, who gave such belief to his character that it added in large part to the cohesiveness of the entire production. One wants to see more of Mr. Labrosse's work in anticipation of what magic he might create in other roles, and we sincerely hope that he and other members of this brilliant cast will continue their work as actors even after the termination of their stay.


Jocasta, the Queen mother/wife was played by the only outside professional actor, Cecily Lyn Benjamin, who volunteered her talented services, appearing at the courtesy of Actors Equity. Ms. Benjamin played Jocasta convincingly in her scenes with Oedipus and brought a regal presence of her character to every moment she was onstage.


Kevin Collins as Creon, the brother of Jocasta and accused by Oedipus of plotting against him, gave a powerful performance in his character's heart-wrenching search for the truth.


Also taking temporary leave of the chorus is Dario Pena in the role of Teirsias, the blind seer who reluctantly bares the bad news of Oedipus' true provenance. Mr. Pena is so convincing in this turn that for a few moments you have the feeling that he will prevail in not divulging this devastating info and that a new ending might have been written. But with the difficulty Mr. Pena poses in this knowledge being extracted from him, he deftly creates the perfect setup for its horrendous effect.


Charles Grasso, Patrick Gadson, and Richard Valle also distinguished themselves as Messenger #1, shepherd, and Messenger #2, respectively, as other chorus members moving into additional characters.
Again, the intensity, honesty, and camaraderie of the actors onstage created a superior theatrical experience that could only well from their passion for this opportunity to transcend their shared experience, an existence they rendered to a temporary condition by bravely plumbing the depths of their deepest psyches to bring forth that treasure called "self," to be carried with pride to the other side of these walls.
A living, breathing example of the success of the RTA program exists in the person of a large and benevolent young man name Sean "Dino" Johnson, who credits his transformation to his participating in the program during 15 years of incarceration at Sing Sing for drug trafficking and is now associate director of School Based Initiatives for High Schools with Council for Unity, helping kids with issues find positive opportunities for meaningful lives. Just back from Albany, where his program is being adopted to help high school kids in that area, Dino can be reached at 347-813-1185 or Djohnson@councilforunity.org.
For more information about RTA and how to support this incredible program either financially or as a volunteer or both, call Katherine Vockins or go to their Prison Community International Web site, www.p-c-i.org and click on the RTA program. You'll be inspired. As Dino so eloquently put it, "A man can only reach so far outside of these walls. It takes humanity to reach in."


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