A CITY IS enveloped in fear. People are dropping dead left and right and one person is accountable. But who is it?

An ancient forerunner of today's serial killers? A madman running amok?An investigation ensues and, like a 1940s Hollywood murder mystery, the clues begin to surface and the tale unravels.

The setting is ancient Greece and the central character is a mythological king.

Call this a murder myth-tery.

With elements like this, it would make a terrific play.

That's what Sophocles thought, too. About 430 B.C. he wrote "Oedipus the King," one of a handful of his classics that endure intact to this day.

The central character in the story is the same chap who gave his name to the behavioral term "Oedipus complex."

Oedipus. Is it pronounced Ed-ipus, as in "Mr. Ed," or Eeed-ipus, with the first syllable rhyming with feed? Tom Markus, co-director of this year's University of Utah Classic Greek Theatre Festival production, "Oedipus the King," has opted for Eeed-ipus.

"We're basing our language in this production on what will be the most accessible for the audience. Why make it hard for people?" Markus said.

One of the key, behind-the-scenes figures in the Classical Greek Theatre Festival productions is James Svendsen, associate professor of classics and theater at the U. and dramaturge for the production. In addition to giving pre-show lectures, which help audiences further enjoy the presentations, he assists the show's directors and cast.

"Jim is a terrific guy," said Markus. "He works with us not only as co-producer, but also as dramaturge, and it's very exciting. He sits in on the rehearsals, reading the Greek version. When we get into the translation and find a strange line, we'll ask `What does it mean?' and he gives scholarly advice on what the major critical questions of the play are. He's a wonderful body of information for us."

Markus added that it's especially nice to have "a scholar who is also knowledgable about theater practice. This is very rare, and Svendsen is absolutely wonderful in all this."

For the past 18 years, the U.'s theater department has presented classics of Greek literature in traditional ancient Greek fashion - outdoors, early in the morning.

During the '70s, in fact, they were staged very early - right at the crack of dawn, about 6:30 a.m. Even at that early hour, they developed a growing audience of faithful fans.

In recent years, the time was shifted to a more humane 8:30 a.m. - just early and brisk enough so patrons shouldn't doze off (always a risk in nighttime theater after a hard day's work), and the plays are over with by 10 a.m. or so - before the noonday sun gets hot and serious.

Markus chairs the U. theater department. His co-director, Hester Schell, is a graduate student.

"When I first arrived here, two years ago, and learned that we did ancient Greek tragedy at 8:30 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays, my first thought was that we were going to be alone. But I found that an average of 800 people come every morning," said Markus. "I don't believe there's anything else like this in the country."

Markus, a Chicago native, has led a fairly nomadic theatrical life, teaching and directing all over the country and around the world, everywhere from Washington to Florida, from Australia to Great Britain.

"In the Moscow airport, there's a wonderful image - a large map of the world showing Moscow at the center and expanding out from there, with North America at the very edge, like it's very far awary. Ifwe can learn, whether by traveling or seeing an unusual play, like `Oedipus,' that there are other ways of understanding the world, then we are better for it."

Which is why Markus is excited about directing a play with dialogue that is elevated from what is normally seen on television, with larger-than-life characters, depicted with huge Greek-style masks.

"The entire event is a ceremony, an unusual experience that widens our vision," said Markus.

"Oedipus the King" is generally acknowledged to be one of the most skillfully plotted plays ever written. As events motivated by a great plague in Thebes unfold, the work is comparable to a modern detective yarn.

"We've taken the approach that this is the story of a city that is suffering a plague because it has something very corrupt at its center, something that must be purged," Markus said, "so that it is less the story of one man and what happens to him, but the story of a community and how it heals itself."

"How do we heal the many corruptions in today's world?" Markus asked. "Racism, poverty, mental illness, AIDS, even greed.

"If a play can show us one example of a city getting rid of the corruption at its center, maybe, in some tiny way, we can enlighten ourselves - which is why this is such a great play, and it usually comes around just once in every generation."

In Sophocles' play, Oedipus, the king of Thebes, opens an investigation to determine the causes of a plague sweeping the city. In essence, the mythical Oedipus himself plays the detective, tracking down clues to uncover the culprit.

He discovers that the plague has occurred because the murderer of Thebes' previous king is still alive and unpunished in the city. As the facts surface, the audience learns that it is Oedipus himself who is the criminal - that years earlier, he had unknowingly killed his own father and married his widowed mother.

Oedipus must then punish himself in order to free the city from the plague.

For their production, the students in the U. theater department are using a translation by William Butler Yeates.

Markus said that working with a co-director has been an interesting new experience for him.

"It's a rich experience for all of us," he said. "The actors are learning that there are two different, but collaborating, directors, and it's valuable for a student director to work alongside a seasoned veteran.

"This show also provides student actors with an opportunity to go out on tour, and not many get a chance to do this in college."

Markus said he is going for a more modern, spectacular looking event than is normally found in traditional Greek theater.

"We're using full masks for the actors, which is not precisely what the ancient Greeks wore," he said.

The masks, designed by Ching-Yi Ma, were constructed by Kevin Copenhaver from the Utah Shakespearean Festival.

The Greek production has another Shakespearean Festival connection as well. An original score for the chorus in "Oedipus" has been composed by Christine Frezza, who has composed music for the festival in Cedar City for the past six season. Frezza, a faculty member in the University of Pittsburgh, is also composer-in-residence for that city's Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival.

The cast for "Oedipus" includes Willard Knox as Oedipus, Kathy Williams as Jocasta, Jason Novak as Creon, Chris Borg as the priest, and Trevor Williams as Tiresias.

Performances will be 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 22-23 and 29-30, outdoors at Pioneer Trail State Park amphitheater, 2601 Sunnyside Ave. (at the mouth of Emigration Canyon across from Hogle Zoo).

The production will also tour five Utah locales as part of the Utah Arts Council's annual Utah Performing Arts tour. These dates and locations are:

- Tuesday, Oct. 2, 7:30 p.m., Austad Auditorium, Weber State College, Ogden.

- Thursday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m., Joseph Crane Theatre, Snow College, Ephraim.

- Saturday, Oct. 6, 8:30 a.m., outdoors adjacent to Corona Arch, near Moab.

- Tuesday, Oct. 9, 7:30 p.m., Pardoe Drama Theatre, Brigham Young University, Provo.

- Wednesday, Oct. 10, 8 p.m., Morgan Theatre, Utah State University, Logan.

Note that the performance in Moab, like the four in Salt Lake City, is a traditional early-morning presentation, while the others are in the evening.

For further information about the performances or the pre-show lectures, call the University of Utah department of theater at 581-6448 or 581-5404.

All performances are free of charge, and tickets are not required.