The story of Oedipus the King has been outfitted in numerous cultural and historical contexts since its birth in Ancient Greece. I’ve caught myself thinking of ways to repackage this fossilized piece of fruitcake, or rolling my eyes at simply another attempt at contemporizing this tale of destiny, and “how dare you try to escape the fate prescribed by the gods.” However, in Luis Alfaro’s steamy, to say the least, Oedipus El Rey, from The Sol Project, the moral becomes something far more tangible and relevant than, say, the validity of fatalism, as the writer marries Sophocles’ royals into a Chicano gang in South Central L.A., and uses the myth to reflect the vicious cycle of “fate” that Mexican immigrants on the border seem to have no way of escaping.
The production keeps the ensemble-based storytelling common in Greek theatre. We meet Oedipus (Juan Castano) first: accustomed to a life behind bars, still youthful, and with incomparable focus. There is a certain mystique about him, and a peculiar kind of gait. We find out that the hero of the story is named after his disability: Oedipus means swollen feet, for his feet were sliced up as a baby, and it has given him a street name: Patas Malas. Oedipus’ inmates serve as the chorus, whose joyous congregation gives the foreboding tragedy an exciting start, and with simply one costume piece or prop, each transforms into a different player in the tale: Dark glasses and cane for Tiresias (Julio Monge), the old man who followed Oedipus to prison and raised the younger as his own; an obnoxiously large bling necklace (of a crown) for Laius, the ruthless king (Juan Francisco Villa); an even more obnoxiously large cup of soda for Creon (Joel Perez); and then there’s Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), the sultry queen in a red dress.
The best thing about tragedy is that we are already promised a bleak ending; it gives you a sense of resolute dignity, when all you have to do, is focus on the how and the why. It’s like examining a history full of violence and war, not because we want to change what had happened, but to figure out what not to do next time something similar comes around.
We start from the beginning: Laius is addicted to power and Jocasta is lonely, and just when the king and queen of the gang are about to enjoy some familial bliss, three owls bring premonitions to Laius’ dream. “Your son will grow up and kill you.” They say. Of course, instead of going to therapy or making sure his son is so loved that he will never even think of committing patricide, Laius decides to commit infanticide first, pushing his marital life more towards the brink than it already is. Tiresias gets the thankless job, and decides to show mercy to a defenseless newborn. Well, can you blame him?
Many years pass by, and the father and son thrown together by destiny, literally (and thrown into prison), share a relatively peaceful life. The old man, now blind, tells his fake son during Tai Chi, to go to Vegas, the land of exile. The young man, much like Pi (as in Life of Pi), has spent his time with Tiresias in prison learning so much about all religions that he no longer believes in any of them. When he is released on parole with a full head of ambitions, he steps into the unknown, where the odds are stacked against his American dreams.
Of course, Oedipus’ not-so-grand homecoming is met with many a twist of fate: his confrontation with Laius ends in blood, and his reunion with Jocasta ends in lust. Like in any other version of the story, Creon still hates his guts: this cocky newcomer who disrespects all the local deities, somehow sleeps his way into becoming the new king.
Alfaro’s adaptation of the Sophocles tragedy takes a close look at the relationship between Jocasta and Oedipus. The scenes between them are tender and vastly different from the rest of the play, which is mostly at an energized fast pace. They are a sympathetic couple, bound together through their shared trauma of loss. I found myself rooting for their romance while constantly being reminded of how wrong it is when the bodies of a mother and a son intertwine.
Is the emotional intimacy between Jocasta and Oedipus important? Absolutely, for it adds to the complexity of the characters. Are the conspicuous R rated parts followed by full nudity for the remaining of a not-so-swift scene critical to the plot, or are they more distracting? I suppose it’s to each their own.
Director Chay Yew has a way with maintaining the rhythm of this complex, multigenerational epic. Riccardo Hernandez’s simple yet dynamic scenic design consists of several partition fences in front of a floor to ceiling street mural depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe. The fences are reconfigured into various settings, while maintaining the image of a cage. Indeed Oedipus, along with everyone else in his community, has been imprisoned most of his life, whether by a physical manifestation of an iron cage, or a metaphorical one called destiny.
Oedipus El Rey asks an urgent question with this timeless tale: how do we break down this cycle? It is without a doubt a refreshing take on a familiar story, too familiar. After thousands of years, here it is, we are still faced with a tragedy of fate, yet this time, fate is no longer Apollo’s decree, or a game played by some made up gods, but a flawed system that doesn’t allow a vicious cycle to break, a system that allows racial profiling and stereotypes. Today, Oedipus and his kinsmen no longer wear togas or sacrifice to Zeus or Athena; they are wearing hijabs, and turbans, and dreadlocks, and speak with an accent, and they’re getting padded down at the airports, or being stopped at the street corners. How do we break down this system, asks the chorus. Telling the story is step one.
Oedipus El Rey runs through December 3, 2017. More details can be found here.