Theatre Rhinoceros’ ‘Oedipus at Palm Springs’ shocks audience with predictability

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Four lesbians walk into a Palm Springs resort. The punchline is incest.

It isn’t difficult to immediately be captivated by the very concept of Theatre Rhinoceros’ “Oedipus at Palm Springs,” a modern reimagining of “Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles. In this particular retelling, Oedipus is Terri (Jensen Power), a 36-year-old communications major obsessed with finding her birth mother.

Jocasta, in turn, is Prin (Elaine Jennings): a 52-year-old stone butch businesswoman with a reputation for promiscuity. As anyone familiar with the work would expect from the setup, Prin is later revealed to be Terri’s mother. Fittingly, she is about to propose to Terri for her 37th birthday, which coincides with the weekend.

Joining the unlucky couple are only three other characters. Usually present alongside the main pair are Fran (Eliza Gibson) and Con (Desiree Rogers), a married couple with a young son who has interrupted their sex life for four years. And then there is Joni (AJ Davenport), the all-knowing blind soothsayer who runs the resort. Like her counterpart Tiresias in the original play, she sets the climax in motion by reading Terri’s fortune.

“Oedipus at Palm Springs” premiered at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2005 and was written by the Five Lesbian Brothers, a theater company that has authored five lesbian- and feminist-themed plays. This particular production was directed by Kathryn Wood and put on at San Francisco’s Gateway Theatre.

As the August day sets in, the four women arrive and greet each other with hugs and laughs. Lightheartedness marks the beginning of the story, with little to give away after what the title already spoils. The drama unfolds on a simple set that covers all necessary bases: a bedroom on either side of the stage for each couple and a communal pool area.

In many ways, the play is successful, and the complex friendships among the four women are a marvel to relish when played out onstage. It is a healing experience to watch a play wherein women are the forefront, where they stand at center stage with no men to overshadow them.

Unfortunately, the play fails the one character who ought to be handled well: Terri.

A victim of shallow characterization, Terri fades into the background, overpowered by the older women and their more compelling dialogue and storylines. It is far more interesting to watch Fran and Con talk out their lackluster sex life than it is to watch Terri repeatedly express the longing she has for her birth family — and little else. Even Joni receives substantially more character development, whether through her own dialogue or when she’s name-dropped by the other women.

The standout performer is Jennings, whose raw performance of Prin is convincing, tense and, at times, heartbreaking. Prin is the first to discover that Terri is her daughter, which understandably sends her into a downward spiral of booze and violence wherein she tries to force Terri away from her without having to tell her the truth about why they must part ways. As a result of Terri’s minimal character development, it is Prin who carries most of the weight during this particular couple’s story arc and the play’s climax — and Jennings pulls it off very, very well.

The audience, in turn, was enthralled. As it dawned upon Prin that she had been in a seven-year relationship with the daughter she gave up 37 years ago, the same realization dawned upon the audience. Visibly, jaws dropped. Eyes opened wide, and gasps were heard sporadically throughout the small room.

It was a revelation that everyone saw coming, but the very boldness of it managed to be shocking anyway.

As the performance ended and the actresses bowed to multiple standing ovations, Gibson commented on the play’s ability to make the audience think about humanity in a different way. Ultimately, that’s the play’s main achievement. Even though its weaknesses distract from the main, provocative relationship, it’s impossible not to be drawn in by the shock factor that presents a taboo topic so unabashedly.

The joke had a few rough patches, sure. But the punchline still played well, and sometimes that’s all that anyone can ask for — especially when incest is the punchline.

“Oedipus at Palm Springs” will run at Gateway Theatre through July 22.

Alex Jiménez covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].