ACTOR Stephen Spinella: “Unlike other arrogant, pompous men who are full of themselves, Oedipus is searching for the truth. That’s what makes him a tragic hero.”

Stephen Spinella

Stephen Spinella

There are many challenges facing Stephen Spinella, the two-time Tony Award®-winning actor, in playing the role of Oedipus in The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s oratorio of Oedipus the King by the Brothers Balliett. But they are challenges he welcomes.

The story itself is daunting: first written around 430 B.C. by the Greek tragedian Sophocles, the tale of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes who kills his father and marries his mother, has been told in many forms throughout the ages and in different cultures around the world because of its primal warning of the incest taboo. It is one of mankind’s most enduring myths. The Balliett piece is based on the bloodier, more visceral version by Seneca, the Roman philosopher and tutor to the Emperor Nero in the first century A.D. “Oedipus is a complex character,” says Spinella. “He is arrogant, full of ostentatious self-regard, in love with his own cleverness with words. But he’s not a phony, he’s not trying to con the people. He truly wants to find out who killed the former King, and punish that person so that the plague will be lifted as the oracles have predicted. He doesn’t know it is he himself who is the killer, though he slowly comes to that realization and punishes himself mercilessly.”

And then there is the form: the Oedipus role is spoken, whereas all the other roles in the play—Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, her brother Kreon, the blind prophet Tiresias, the shepherd who saved the infant Oedipus’ life—are sung by the Chorus. Since Oedipus not only declaims in speeches and soliloquies but also interacts with the other characters, this requires a timing even more precise than if all the characters were speaking or all were singing. There is a rapid back-and-forth between Oedipus (speaking) and Kreon (singing), whom the King has sent to the oracle at Delphi to find out what is causing the terrible plague that is devastating Thebes:

KREON: It was confusing.
OEDIPUS: OK, and what did the prophet say?
KREON: It was confusing!
OEDIPUS: Now’s no time for mincing words like scallions! If you value the truth you’ll volunteer every ingredient!
KREON: It was dark and terrible, twisted like an ancient root. It was confusing!
OEDIPUS: You forget that I have a degree in solving riddles. Don’t fret, don’t delay, paint us a picture. 

Spinella especially appreciates the language used by the Balliett brothers, who did their own translation from Seneca’s Latin, using an earlier English translation as a guide. Having acted in an earlier Sophocles play, Electra, on Broadway, he knows how challenging formal classical language—its syntax and rhythms—can be to the actor trying to make the character sound human. And there is always a danger with translations that they become too colloquial. “The Ballietts did an amazing job, using such ornate language that the text has immediate resonance for the audience without falling into the mundane.” 

One year ago, for The Cecilia Chorus of New York’s concert of Messiahs: False and True by Rex Isenberg, Spinella played a narrator, who declaimed speeches by historic figures such as Martin Luther King, Shakespeare, Jim Jones, and Ronald Reagan in between sections sung by the Chorus. That was his first experience with a genre of this type, and after the sold-out concert was met with standing ovations, he said to Music Director Mark Shapiro, “If you ever want to do something like this again, count me in!”  

Stephen Spinella won two Tony and Drama Desk Awards for the original Broadway productions of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America plays, which marked his Broadway debut.

Mr. Spinella has since starred on Broadway in the Tony Award®-winning musical Spring Awakening; revivals of A View from the Bridge, Electra, and Our Town (with Paul Newman); and James Joyce’s The Dead, for which he won a third Drama Desk Award, as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award, and was again a Tony nominee. His most recent Broadway credit is The Velocity of Autumn, co-starring Estelle Parsons.

Off-Broadway, Mr. Spinella won an Obie in Love! Valour! Compassion! He also appeared in An Iliad (Lucile Lortell and Obie Awards); alongside Meryl Streep in The Seagull directed by Mike Nichols; and in Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. Most recently he was in the critically acclaimed production of Coriolanus.

Among his feature film credits: Alfonso Cuaron’s Great Expectations; Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock; Gus Van Zant’s award-winning Milk; Quentin Dupieux’s cult hit Rubber; and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Mr. Spinella has guest-starred on Will and Grace, Frasier, Heroes, Grey’s Anatomy, Nip/Tuck, and Alias. He’s had recurring roles on The Education of Max Bickford, 24, Desperate Housewives, Royal Pains, and Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick.