Barry McNamara  |   Published October 18, 2016

‘The first detective story’

Director Zank bringing Oedipus Rex into 1940s film noir
By scrapping the traditional stage version of Oedipus Rex, Visiting Assistant Professor of Theatre Ron Zank is making good on a proposal he made during his Monmouth College interview.

The classic Sophocles play will be performed Oct. 27-30 in the College’s Wells Theater.

Zank’s production will be in “a film noir style with lots of 1940s detective stuff. It was a suggestion I made during my interview,” he said.

Zank said scholars have called Oedipus Rex the first detective story, because Oedipus is “trying to figure out what is causing all the turmoil in the kingdom.”

“That statement is really how this production came about,” said Zank. “I’d read the play and I’d taught it. The detective story quote resonated with me, and I thought it might be a good way to approach it.”

Additionally, it was about time for Oedipus Rex to return to the Monmouth stage after a 60-year absence.

“The department has a cycle of plays, and it was due to perform a Greek or Roman one,” he said. “It’s been since the 1950s since it put on Oedipus. I didn’t go with the standard translation. I adopted the script and added some ’40s slang, such as the cursed city being ‘in Dutch.’ Of course, even 20th-century slang is new to our students, so one of 14 cast members, who is an international student, asked ‘What’s wrong with the Dutch?’”

The three lead roles of Oedipus, Jocasta and Creon will be played by, respectively, Johnny Williams ’17 of Kewanee, Ill., Sarah Schmidt ’17 of Marengo, Ill., and Billy Savage ’19 of Hickory Hills, Ill.

Adapting a play is nothing new for Zank.

“I really enjoy taking an old chestnut of a play that’s been done a bunch, changing it up and seeing how it works on stage. I also have adapted novels and films for the stage,” he said.

Zank’s dissertation was on films that had been adapted into stage plays or musicals, focusing primarily on the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, which first reached the stage in 1942.

“I studied how that process has changed over time,” he said. “Initially, the plays were very different from the films, but as we get closer to the present, the productions are more and more trying to create the film on stage.”

When Zank interviewed for his current position, he was not unfamiliar with Monmouth. He had seen the campus and the theatre facilities – including a production of A Year with Frog and Toad – while visiting his friend and former department member Emily Rollie. When Rollie took a new job, she told Zank he should apply for her position.

“It was exciting and appealing,” Zank said of his previous time on campus. “I like the small liberal arts college atmosphere. It’s a great place to work.”

When working with student actors, Zank said he likes to “really try to empower them, so it isn’t me making all the decisions. They can try things and experiment with the way things happen, the way lines are performed. They can have some agency in that.”

Zank started his career in theatre as an actor, but “quickly figured out I was an OK actor, but there were other aspects of theatre I enjoyed more – being backstage, writing and doing lots of directing.”

Although Zank’s position is only for one year, he does think about what he might do at Monmouth if he stays longer, potentially exploring “experimental, avant garde pieces, such as plays that have no dialogue, and are all told through movement.” He also imagines taking traditional plays, such as Shakespeare, and adapting them with such sources as “the trial transcripts of the Menendez brothers, or the language of the shopping network.”

Oedipus Rex will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 27-29 and at 2 p.m. Oct. 30 at the Wells Theater. Tickets can be purchased online: $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students, and $6 for students and faculty with a Monmouth College ID.

Oedipus Rex contains mature content and is not recommended for viewers under the age of 13.
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