When playwright Jason Patrick Rothery set out to adapt the tragic tale of Oedipus Rex, he never imagined that his new work would turn out to mirror controversial current events. But that’s exactly what’s happening with Inside the Seed.
Produced by Upintheair Theatre, the play follows a scientist at a giant biotech corporation who’s developed the “perfect” seed. He claims the Golden Grain will put an end to global hunger, but it has a dark side. Just weeks before the show’s upcoming premiere in Vancouver, meanwhile, hundreds of farmers in the Philippines made headlines for trampling a test plot of a genetically engineered product known as Golden Rice.
Scientists behind the yellow-hued grain say it can reduce vitamin A deficiency, a form of malnutrition that can lead to blindness, stunted growth, and even death. Opponents of GM foods, however, say such products are detrimental to human and ecological health. In September, the debate intensified when Tufts University issued an apology to parents of Chinese schoolchildren who unknowingly consumed the product as part of a joint U.S.–China test on the GM rice.
Despite the uncanny timing, Rothery insists he was never out to make a political statement through theatre regarding genetically modified foods.
“My intent with this piece is not to say GM food is good or bad,” Rothery says on the line from Ottawa, where he’s just started his PhD in communications at Carleton University. “The issue is far more complicated than that.…It’s easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to people going in and tampering with our food. The science is so advanced, though, and I think that’s what we’re uncomfortable with.”
In fact, Rothery decided to set the play inside a biotech firm simply to share his passion for Greek tragedy in a way that would speak to modern theatregoers. “I had joined Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto…and one of the project assignments as a writer was to adapt a classical text,” explains Rothery, former artistic director of Calgary’s Ghost River Theatre, where he mounted dozens of productions and tours including NiX, which was presented during the 2010 Cultural Olympiad. “Oedipus I’d loved forever. When I first read it, it was true love. It’s the kind of text where every time you come back to it, you find more layers, more ways of interpreting it; it’s polysemic and fascinating. That led to a fascination with the whole context of Greek theatre. Initially I thought of doing a straight adaptation, but I really wanted to do my own version of it, to take it and use it as a template to do a contemporary story for a contemporary audience.”
Directed by Pi Theatre artistic director Richard Wolfe and featuring a cast of eight, Inside the Seed weaves in subjects that the original tale of Oedipus Rex explored: fatalism, plague, and democracy among them.
“How can something 2,500 years old still be so resonant?” Rothery says. “Yet, at the same time, if people don’t know anything about Oedipus at all, the play still functions on its own.”