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'Death and The King's Horseman' asks big questions

When the action-free zone that is the first act of Wole Soyinka's "Death and the King's Horseman" sputters to a merciful end, the tragic story at the play's heart finally begins to find its legs. In the British colony of Nigeria in the 1940s, the king has died, and ancient custom demands that his horseman follow him in death in 30 days.

The plot quickens in the second of five acts when the colonial twits running the district for the English get wind of the impending ritual death and predictably do exactly the wrong thing.

Soyinka's tragic drama opened Saturday afternoon at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Bowmer Theatre, directed by the Goodman Theatre's Chuck Smith. Beautifully staged, it is an exotic, somewhat static thing that will baffle and challenge theater-goers much in the manner of the Sanscrit epic "The Clay Cart" in 2008.

The dialog is full of magnificent poetry. Unfortunately, much of it is crammed into that discursive first act during which actors are compelled to stand around as they deliver it. Much of the delivery is done by Derrick Lee Weedon, who plays Elesin, the Horseman. Weedon can command a stage with the magnificent instrument that is his voice, but his odd phrasing makes him sound as if he's speaking in italics. This diverts attention from the words to the speaker.

A bit of a fool, Elesin brags in the vibrant marketplace of his lust for life. He takes a new young wife and consummates the marriage in a sign of his unwillingness to let go of the things of the world and get on with it.

But he asserts that he will do his duty and die at the appointed time, which is fast approaching. This is necessary so that the Chief's spirit does not wander the Earth to the detriment of his people.

Playing counterpoint to the Horseman is the Praise- Singer (G. Valmont Thomas), who lyrically teases Elesin, speaking in Yoruban oriki (poems) about duty, death and life's riddles. In contrast to Weedon's formality, Thomas injects his lines with witty, naturalistic vigor.

Elesin's and Praise-Singer's badinage is richly metaphorical, packed with culturally specific references that stretch into little allegories. They speak in drawn-out tropes involving horses, trees, beetles, hills, plantains and sap, lots of sap.

The result of all this is not unlike seeing a Shakespeare play when you were a kid. You know the language is powerful, but it also is strange and dense and impossible to gulp down in these enormous bites.

In contrast to the dignified, sophisticated Yoruba with their poetry and their traditions, stand the clueless colonials with their reckless power and their casual racism. District officer Simon Pilkins (Rex Young) is a walking explanation for the fall of the British Empire.

The play is based on a real incident that caused an uproar in 1946. Soyinka has urged audiences not to see "Horseman" as a clash of cultures, but it's hard to take that to heart when you're plunged into the wreckage of the clash.

The ultimate tragedy comes about as a combination of Pilkin's obtuseness and arrogance and Elesin's personal failure. Soyinka won't allow his characters and audience the easy way out by simply blaming racism. Instead, he complicates the ending. To say more would be a spoiler.

"Horseman" is a lush production with Lydia Tanji's colorful African costumes, Linda Buchanan's knock-out stage and live drummers, including master drummer Adebisi Adeleke. But Soyinka is a poet who never says in 10 words what he can say in 10 minutes. This is a complex pastiche of history, politics, metaphysics and mysticism that addresses big questions about life and our relationship to death. It is highly entertaining and not always easy to sit through.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Elesin (Derrick Lee Weeden) entertains the women of the marketplace (Khatt Taylor, Krystel Lucas, Arsene DeLay) with a story. - OSF photo by Jenny Graham