That Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother is fated and – 2,500 years after Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex – familiar. But Luis Alfaro’s modern adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy, set in the Chicano barrio of South Central Los Angeles, turns it into something new and shocking, bringing on stage what the Greek playwright kept off stage, in an intense, visceral production directed by Chay Yew at the Public Theater. If it begins feeling stagey, “Oedipus El Rey” becomes brutal and direct, but also graphically sensuous and oddly tender — ultimately in all ways gripping.
Set against a backdrop of a vivid street mural of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the play is a clever melding of the more or less complete plot of Oedipus Rex with the feel of the streets — the humor, hardness, hardship and rhythms of the barrio. It begins with orange-clad inmates – the Greek chorus turned Chicano coros — who tell the back story of Oedipus, and nominally act it out: how a soothsayer El Sobador prophesizes to Laius, a gang leader, that his son will kill him (“Cash only, no checks” the seer says to Laius as payment for his prophecy.) So Laius demands of his mano derecha (right-hand man) Tiresias Gomez that he kill the newborn.
Laius: I’ve never hurt a child, compadre.
Tiresias: It’s a tiny death. We’ll laugh about it later.
In the next scene we see the grown-up Oedipus, who thinks Teresias is his father, in prison because he’s robbed a Costco. Released into an unwelcoming outside world, he runs into his real father Laius, literally – they meet head-on going in opposite directions in a one-lane highway. Road rage escalates; Laius brandishes a knife; Oedipus punches him to death, not knowing who he is, not knowing he’s just committed patricide.
Oedipus begs Creon, whom he had met in prison, to let him crash at his place, having nowhere else to go. He doesn’t know that Creon is his uncle. Creon introduces him to his sister, Jocasta, who is Oedipus’ mother. The main focus of Alfaro’s adaptation in a real sense is the love affair between Oedipus and Jocasta, which includes a nude sex scene that may be the most explicit on a legitimate New York stage since the 1960s.
“Oedipus El Rey” builds in power in large part due to its committed cast. Standouts include Joel Perez (who played all the young men in Fun Home) and Sandra Delgado as Jocasta. But this play revolves around Juan Castano, who is taking on what should by all rights be a star-making role in an Oedipus who seems at most times in various states of undress — often shirtless, sometimes completely naked, occasionally in wife beater t-shirt and dungarees. But in a way he is always naked before us in Oedipus’ vulnerability, immaturity, anger, impetuousness, resentments, hunger, ambition, greed and need….and horror.
When the coros more or less repeat in the epilogue what they said in the prologue —
Look at Oedipus. His story.
Will we remember our stories?
Or are we doomed to repeat them?
Do we lay down and take what the world has given us?
Or do we break down the cycle, the system, and tell new stories? —
we now understand the connection Alfaro is making between how the Ancient Greek viewed their fate and many Latinos view their future.
Oedipus El Rey
Written by Luis Alfaro; Directed by Chay Yew
Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez, Costume Design: Anita Yavich, Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu, Original Music & Sound Design: Fabian Obispo
Cast: Juan Castano (Oedipus, Coro); Sandra Delgado (Jocasta);Julio Monge (Tiresias, Coro); Joel Perez (Creon, Coro); Brian Quijada (Coro); Reza Salazar (Coro); and Juan Francisco Villa (Laius, Coro).
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $60 – $65
Oedipus El Rey is set to run through December 3, 2017