Written specifically for Londonderry's City of Culture 2013 - Northern Ireland

Oedipus represents two enduring themes of Greek myth and drama: the flawed nature of humanity and an individual's role in the course of destiny in a harsh universe. The play gets its title from a line in Oedipus when the character called Chorago says, "If the killer can feel a particle of dread, your curse will bring him out of hiding."

As a young man Oedipus is told by a seer that he will grow up to kill his own father and marry his mother. He flees from home to avoid this terrible fate but there is no escape and the dreadful prophecy finally catches up with him. Shepard tells this Greek tale as a modern thriller. A murder is commited. Who is the victim? Who is responsible? What are the consequences for generations to come? There are many versions of the crime. People are hiding from the truth, even when it stares them in the face.

Notes from Sam

"The material we are using is pertinent to the situation here. It's not as though we are doing something just for culture. We are doing it for a reason. The notion of 'place' is very strong here. There is where something happened. We explore destiny, fate, murder, exploitation, origins. The fact there is a wall round the city is part and parcel of what is going on in the play. I don't think there is anybody who cannot see there are repercussions with what is happening here. It is important to have art and culture in a society go through transformation. Something is happening here. You can feel it. Putting on this type of play here takes on a different significance than say if we were going to New York. Where strife has been in the foreground, it is bound to have repercussions, or is bound to have meaning."

"I think Sophocles must have had an intention. I donít think he was writing just for the heck of it. I think he knew very well what we all know yet pretend not to. I think he knew we each have a destiny and a fate. That they work side by side, whether we see it or not. That this destiny is somehow written; forecast, like the weather."

"Iím still trying to work out the difference between fate and destiny. I know that destiny is the thing that youíre written to do and fate is perhaps the thing you do with it, or vice versa. But the idea that, regardless of what you do, this thing has already come down; it is already written."

"The thing about Oedipus to me that is so incredible is that it doesnít have a plot. Thereís no story. Itís just a situation. Itís a predicament that the central character finds himself in. And the audience knows everything. Heís totally guilty, as the audience knows, but believes himself totally innocent."

Character descriptions

Oedipus/Otto: plays multiple roles including Oedipus, King of Thebes. When told as a young man that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, he left his home and came to Thebes. There he solved the riddle of the sphinx and married Queen Jocasta without realizing she was his real mother. Now Thebes has been attacked by plague. Oedipus is a strong, proud leader, determined to rescue his city from the plague by finding out who killed its former king. Short of temper. Also plays Otto, in a wheelchair, possibly a retired teacher. Mild mannered and curious, he is plagued by dreams in which he seems to have murdered someone. He becomes fascinated by newspaper reports of a crime on the highway, as if somehow this crime is related to him or his dreams. He has a close loving relationship with his daughter Annalee.

Antigone/Annalee: plays multiple roles including Antigone, daughter of Oedipus. Strong, determined, passionate about how she lives her life. Uncompromising, loving. Also plays Annalee, daughter of Otto. Married to a violent man who has killed their babysitter. Terrified it will affect her baby son's future because of what he has seen. Blunt, outspoken, determined, loves her father.

Jocasta/Jocelyn: Jocasta is the Queen of Thebes. Attractive, sensual, high status, proud, a strong match for her husband Oedipus. He is in fact her son. Perhaps she has always known or suspected this and does not want the truth to come out. Mild Northern Irish accent. Jocelyn is the wife of Otto. A Southwestern housewife. Otto is an anxious man, but she is the calm one, unruffled, wants a peaceful life, avoids conflict. A gently warm personality.

Uncle Del/Traveler/Tiresias/Maniac Of The Outskirts: with a strong comic sense, irony, sense of detachment from society's madness. Plays multiple roles, including Uncle Del, based on the Oracle at Delphi. Reads signs, throws the bones, and sacrifices animals to read their intestines; Traveler. blind, lives in the hills and can see the future; Tiresias, a blind seer called to Oedipus to reveal what he knows about why the city is ridden with plague; and Maniac of the Outskirts, an anonymous madman who lives on the outskirts of society and gets blamed for everything. Bitter, pissed off, sarcastic, comic. Think Ratso Ritzo in "Midnight Cowboy."

Laius/Larry/Langos: powerful presence, good-looking, sexy, threatening, simmering, high status. Plays multiple roles including Laius, a king who ruled Thebes years before the Oedipus story. When his wife Queen Jocasta gave birth to their son, Oedipus, the child was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Laius took the child to the hills to be left to die. Years later he was killed at a crossroads in an altercation with Oedipus; Larry, a young, modern version of Laius, consulting a healer because his wife cannot conceive; and Langos, a gangster casino boss who denies at first that he ever had a son but then admits that he did abandon the child in the hills.

Randolph: an American detective who is very keen on the forensic aspect of the work. He is so obsessive about what one can glean about a crime from the evidence that he gets carried away and begins to picture the crime and the people and fantasize about them. Must have a strong comic sense.

Harrington: from the American Southwest. A highway policeman, he is laid back and feels very cynical about forensic experts. He sees the crime in a very straightforward way and simply assumes it is Mexican gang warfare. Bemused by Randolph's fanciful ideas gleaned from the evidence. Must have a strong comic sense.

Notes from Director Nancy Meckler

"Samís been obsessed with the whole idea of Oedipus for a very long time, so I think for him itís an opportunity as a writer to finally go for it. He calls it 'Oedipus Variations' and thatís exactly what it is. The thing about Shepard is that he loves jazz, and this is almost like a jazz improvisation, where you take something thatís thrown up by the story, follow it, and then you come back.  Sometimes weíre in ancient Greece with Oedipus. Sometimes weíre in a modern version. Itís like Samís riffing on the myth, but itís still about a man who does not know his origins and gets caught out trying to get to the truth. He doesnít realize that the truth is going to destroy him."

Derry Playhouse (UK): November 28 - December 7, 2013

Signature Theatre: November 11, 2014 -January 4, 2015

2013 Derry production

Director: Nancy Meckler
Cast:  Stephen Rea, Judith Roddy, Frank Laverty, Iarla McGowan, Brid Brennan, Caolan Byrne and Lloyd Hutchinson

Pre-production images:
Performance images:
Reviews for Derry Production:

Sophie Gorman, Irish Independent:
Shepard has written this almost like a piece of music, with the theme of Oedipus like a musical coda, emerging in different forms but still recognizable. But the end result is one of fragmentation; moments of high drama, standout performances and provocative ideas being tangled with moments of overacting, dipping energy and unnecessarily tangled stories. There are traces of Shakespeare's Macbeth, of gothic horror, The Omen. The ancient themes of sacrifice, of retribution, preserved. But there is also a lack of cohesion in Shepard's writing and also director Nancy Meckler's interpretation. Meckler needs to rein in some performances, to draw others out, to build something of real substance.

Simon Fallaha, Londonderry journalist:
"A Particle Of Dread" began life as a collection of scenes tossed together in no particular order, and, judging by the still seemingly "unfinished" end product, feels not too dissimilar on stage, like a fractured, untypical framework. Not surprisingly, Shepard does not believe in "sense" and "formula", even if everyone seems to want it: "Chaos is a much better instigator, because we live in (it)."

Nor does Shepard believe in "adaptation"; his aim is more abstract, to bring out the heart in the Oedipus story, rather than the shockingly simplistic plot. In other words, he sets out to create a riff on "the feelings, not the form Ė the instincts and all the incredible things that are called up." With the notable aid of director Nancy Meckler, designer Frank Conway, costumer Lorna Marie Mugan and highly-regarded musician Neil Martin, Shepard and the talented Field Day cast have done just that; the end result is like a patchwork thunderbolt of human fear and emotionalism in the guise of an unsophisticated plot. Call it "collaborative chaotic collective".

Peter Crawley, The Irish Times:
...Brilliant retelling of Oedipus Rex...  Shepard has long found echoes of ancient myth in Californian avocado farms or a Mojave motel room. His fractured, briskly episodic take on Oedipus is fascinating for its arch transposition, individual focus and wry updating... More remarkably, though, he pulls the Oedipus legend up by its roots, fits it with earthy new poetry, straddles it between comedy and tragedy, and splinters characters and time frames to construct an eternal dilemma. ...The playís last two scenes are disappointing, leaning hard on Sophoclean equivalents rather than finding uniquely Shepardian correspondence.

Jane Coyle,
In his writing for stage and screen, this quintessentially American writer consistently recognizes that in order for there to be tragedy, there must be comedy; he is equally adept at dishing up dark humour and heart-stopping fear.

In his intriguingly titled play, menace is a constantly lurking presence, whether we are in ancient or modern times. Throughout it all can be heard Shepard's cool, sometimes world-weary voice, sounding straight from the wide open spaces of the American West. ...Director Nancy Meckler displays an instinctive understanding of Shepard's intense narrative, which here follows no conventional structure or form. One by one, little nuggets of story drop into our consciousness like a complicated jigsaw puzzle that has no picture to follow.

In no particular order, but with unflagging momentum, the syncopated action navigates two parallel story lines: the ancient Oedipus myth and the murder of a Las Vegas casino owner, at the side of a dusty desert highway. The pace of storytelling is relentless, moving back and forward in time and merging characters and themes with a dazzling sure touch... After years of silence, Field Day can add this dense, resonant, Chinese puzzle of a play to the very finest in its impressive canon of work.


2014 Signature Theatre Production (NYC)


Director: Nancy Meckler
Cast:  Stephen Rea, Judith Roddy, Brid Brennan, Jason Kolotouros,
Matthew Rauch, Aidan Redmond and Lloyd Hutchinson

Pre-production images:

Reviews for NYC Production:

Tom Sellar, The Village Voice:
Approach Sam Shepard's Particle of Dread with a particle of dread... The sparse lyricism of Shepard's writing lurks but never emerges in Nancy Meckler's lethally muddled production, a pauseless procession of inaccessible characters who talk at us without allowing us fully into their psychic spheres. Frank Conway's ungainly set design poses another barrier... Most of the scenes play so conventionally that they work against the set's spatial abstraction: For instance, when the narratives intersect, classical Oedipus argues with the American police about how the hitchhikers met their demise. Disorientation, rather than some kind of universal value, results from this dramatic mash-up. That's a shame, because Rea holds the stage with a commanding tone and there's some nice writing buried in here. If only the production would let us take it in.

David Cote, Time Out New York:
A fractured, honky-tonk retelling of the Greek myth, this Irish import shows Stephen Rea taking a valiant stab at a text that spins its wheels in the sand... Between the monologues and brief scenes, a cellist and a guitarist provide transitional twanging. Nancy Meckler stages (too woodenly) the bloody goings-on in a tiled room that smacks of shower and abattoir... Shepard is no stranger to the theme of murderous sons and monstrous dads, but heís handled it more powerfully in the better parts of his career. Cryptic, creaky and monotonous, Particle suggests Cormac McCarthy rewriting Sophocles on a very bad day. Rea is a keen, intensely present actor who deserves better.

Kathleen Campion, New York Theatre Guide:
What prompted Shepard to incorporate shape-shifters and time  travelers into an already obtuse plot, one can only wonder.  And yet, the auguries were promising... All the Irish on the set may account for the occasional confusion of accents. Of course, in the sea of confusion presented here, quibbling about accents seems small beer. About halfway into the ninety-minute presentation my guest and I Ė and, I realized, a good share of the audience Ė took to shifting about in our seats. We were trying to straighten up, pay attention, and ďfind the keyĒ to this puzzle before us.

Elyse Sommer, Curtain Up:
Ms. Meckler is clearly attuned to Mr. Shepard's intriguing concept. Though her staging respects the basically plotless play, she nevertheless uses evocative images and guides the actors to reveal the connecting threads. But despite the skillful direction, evocative macabre atmosphere and sterling performances, Mr. Shepard's aim to create a jazz-like riff on a famous myth, hits too many strident and ungainly notes. While Shepard plays are never theater light, A Particle of Dread takes opaqueness to a new level without being as compelling as his previous plays. A play should indeed have something meaningful to say and challenge the viewer, but it should also be entertaining.

Linda Winer, Newsweek:
Mythic, mysterious and obscure... The 90-minute drama, another transfer from actor Stephen Rea's Field Day company in Northern Ireland, is one of the more sober and obscure collages among Shepard's 50-odd, deeply scary, weirdly primal, often amusing works. In many ways, this feels like a return to the playwright's experimental off Off-Broadway beginnings... Ancient myth mingles with Irish accents and desert-rat Americana in a play that is both compelling and pretty ponderous. Still, nobody but Shepard could have written it.

Matthew Murray, Talking Broadway:
If not for Shepardís other tension-packing device, of intricately disrupting the timeline so that, at certain moments, youíre not sure whoís involved in the event youíre watching or when exactly itís happening, there would be no notable deviations from the source at all. This doesnít exactly kill the evening, but it also doesnít help it ó youíre going to take away very little, if anything, from A Particle of Dread that you wouldnít from a solid version of Oedipus Rex...

For her part, director Nancy Meckler has kept the pacing sharp and the actors focused, though sheís not able to conjure surprise when Shepard doesnít give her enough cues to do so. Nor has she made convincing use of Frank Conwayís portentous but head-scratching abattoir set or the live musicians who oversell the spooky factor through Martinís banshee-noir compositions. Too often, the production seems to be trying to say too much, in too many different ways. The script suffers from the opposite problem - Shepardís message would come through more distinctly and more powerfully if we could see how itís evolved across the last few thousand years. Resetting the action in the America of today only takes him so far, and the play feels as though it wants to go further than he allows it.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter:
This oblique intellectual exercise is likely to prove off-putting to all but the most adventurous audiences, although Shepard completists will no doubt want to catch the latest offering from the playwright's ever-restless imagination... Audience members will find themselves baffled at times by the juxtaposition of characters and situations, which seem to have been tossed into a blender and randomly reassembled.... Filled with comic digressions, the piece is frustratingly oblique rather than illuminating... Shepard's willful self-indulgence smacks more of an overeager university drama student than a seasoned playwright.

Wilborn Hampton, Huffington Post:
A Particle of Dread can be baffling, even for those attuned to Shepard's singular brand of storytelling. It is steeped in blood and horror and passion, all of which is couched in conversational chatter and interspersed with mundane trivialities. The references to Sophocles' great tragedy do not always follow a neat pattern, so that the audience has the sense of trying to put together a literary jigsaw puzzle with some of the pieces missing. But there are poetic passages that can chill and excite. A Particle of Dread is probably a better play than the staging mounted by Nancy Meckler... Much of the current staging runs on low energy, as though Meckler and her cast were performing a dry revival of an ancient Greek tragedy.

Joe McGovern, Entertainment Weekly:
Unfortunately, Shepard and director Nancy Meckler fail to sustain  dramatic tension, resulting in an 85-minute slog of a thriller so muddled that even its obliqueness feels predictable. The idea of Shepard, that taciturn chronicler of American woe, taking on an adaptation of Oedipus Rex bursts with promise. And a version of the Sophocles tragedy about a king who murders his father and marries his mother shows up here, though it's uninterestingly mashed together with another narrative, concerning a roadside massacre in the California desert.

David Finkle, Huffington Post:
In one mind, I think it's terribly pretentious. In the other mind, I think it's terribly pretentious, but I'm willing to go with it in large part because of how audacious its pretensions are... As the actors quick-change costumes to appear back then or right now - no matter which characters they're playing - Shepard gets his jollies not only having them muddle through the similar predicaments and but also having them continually comment on them, sometimes drolly and sometimes cantankerously. I can't report that what he has them say is always crystal clear, nor can I insist a fair amount of the colloquy isn't irritatingly hoity-toity. But as played by the cast members with unflagging conviction, they never let Shepard's fireworks fizzle.

David Gordon, Theater Mania:
With three stories being told at once, certain cast members doubling and tripling in roles, and dialects alternating between Irish and American Southern, a crucial disconnect between text and production arises. Any equation Shepard is trying to make between contemporary life and ancient Greek circumstances becomes so muddled in accents and plots that you almost lose interest out of frustration. The physical production of Meckler's staging doesn't help.

Ben Brantley, NY Times:
But Mr. Shepard seems to be having a pretty good time contemplating the nature of tragedy, the value (or lack thereof) of self-knowledge and the persistence of myth in our collective memory. Directed by Nancy Meckler, with a cast led by the excellent Stephen Rea and Brid Brennan, this Irish-born production is a restless riff on ancient themes that ultimately says more about its creator than its subject.

This makes it must-see viewing for students and hard-core fans of Mr. Shepard, whose singular imagination produced the American masterpieces Buried Child and True West. Others are likely to leave Particle bothered and bewildered. Though the production has been staged with theatrical flair and energy, it often comes across as an antic intellectual puzzle, suggesting a Rubikís cube being twisted every which way by a highly precocious kid.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap:
Does it make sense? No, but dreams and madness rarely do, and Shepard's poetry and his wild juxtaposition of ancient royalty and modern-day desert manners involving illegal aliens, drugs, and dead babysitters is hallucinatory. Rea may be the first Oedipus to play the role in blood-spattered overalls, and he deftly handles Shepard's freewheeling segues from tragedy to slapstick and back.

Elisabeth Vincentelli, NY Post:
Itís hard to know whatís going on during Sam Shepardís new play, but A Particle of Dread  always holds your interest. Having the great Irish star Stephen Rea is a bonus, but the style is pure Shepard, a writer who has laid bare the damaged soul of American families... This mix of brutality, humor and fatality stamps the whole evening, with Shepard drawing parallels between the violence of Greek tragedy and that of modern America. Thatís just one possible interpretation, because the show is less than straightforward. And yet it works in its maddening way, especially since it offers plenty of Shepardian insights.