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Theatre in Review: Oedipus El Rey (The Sol Project/The Public Theater)

Sandra Delgado, Joel Perez, Juan Castano, Photo: Joan Marcus

The Oedipus myth finds vivid, pounding, strikingly contemporary life in this new version. This is not a director's trendy concept staging, plopping down a classic tragedy in a familiar modern context: The playwright, Luis Alfaro, has created his own freshly imagined drama based on Sophocles, plausibly framing it in the world of Los Angeles gang culture. In doing so, he preserves the most salient feature of Greek tragedy, that the epic struggles of the protagonist have broad implications for the society he inhabits. Alfaro's Oedipus comes to his ghastly end because of the workings of fate, but also because he tries to reshape his world in his image.

Much of Oedipus El Rey unfolds within a Mexican crime family. "We're the one-stop shop for all your barrio needs," notes one of the characters. "Guns, dime bags, loan-sharking, protection, fully laminated Social Security cards, some drive-bys, and the occasional extortion." At the same time, their lives are governed by a distinct set of beliefs combining Roman Catholicism with traditional folk religions: As in the arrestingly colorful mural that backs Riccardo Hernandez's set, the Blessed Virgin Mary presides on an equal basis with magical healers and prophets. These are the culture's foundational myths, and Oedipus courts disaster when he tries to rob them of their power.

Alfaro also finds a modern analogue to the ritual aspect of Greek drama, reimagining it as a part of an ongoing activity in which a group of male prisoners hang on to their sense of self through the telling of tales. In their words: "Stories are all we got/Stories bigger than us/Stories about us." In this opening sequence, the playwright also deftly establishes that some of the prisoners will fulfill the function of the chorus, commenting urgently, and sometimes fearfully, on the action as its hurtles toward its finale in a pool of blood.

There's one wrinkle to this concept, which is dealt with through the use of a certain theatrical sleight of hand. One by one, prisoners step forward to claims the roles of Oedipus, Tiresias, and the others; one of them, adopting effeminate mannerisms, announces that he is Jocasta -- at which point my heart sank a little, fearing that his performance would tip the entire production into camp humor. He is, however, quickly replaced by the stunning actress Sandra Delgado and it becomes clear that everyone involved is interested in tragedy in the classic sense, and with no holds barred.

In Alfano's telling, Jocasta, wife of Laius, king of LA's Mexican gangs, gives birth to a son. Laius, distressed by a prophecy that his son will someday kill him, orders Tiresias, his lieutenant, to destroy the infant. Laius, an atheist, scorns the very idea of gods and prophets, yet insists on the boy's disposal, just in case. "It's a tiny death. We'll laugh about it later," he says, chillingly. In an additional sign of superstition, he cuts his son's feet, because, he says, "I don't want him chasing me in the afterlife." He adds, thoughtfully, "Even when I cut him, he's a king." The catch in the voice of Juan Francisco Villa, who plays Laius, is unmistakable, a searing sign of regret in the middle of an unthinkable act.

The action jumps forward a couple of decades: Oedipus is now an incarcerated youth, overseen in prison by Tiresias, whom he believes to be his father. The conscience-ridden Tiresias, now blind and given to Buddhist spirituality, has even gotten himself arrested in order to raise the young man he was charged with killing so many years before. When Oedipus is released, Tiresias makes him promise to avoid California and start over in Las Vegas. But nobody wants to hire an ex-con for anything but the lowliest of jobs, and, dispirited by the prospect of trying to get by on a weekly salary of one hundred and sixty dollars, Oedipus breaks his vow and heads for LA, seeking help from his former cellmate, Creon; on the way there, he meets up with Laius, and, in an encounter that quickly spins out of control, kills him. Arriving in the city, Creon introduces him to his sister, Jocasta.

What follows is the most daring -- and crucial -- sequence in the production. Oedipus and Jocasta circle each other in a conversation that initially flares with hostility but quickly turns intimate. Before long, they strip and engage in coitus. (Interestingly, Oedipus admits to being a virgin.) Afterward, lying together naked, they open themselves up to each other in a lengthy exchange that establishes a profound connection between them. The sequence is tenderly, tastefully staged by UnkleDave's Fight-House, which is responsible for orchestrating the production's fights and sexual encounters; if these two characters were perfect strangers, we would be aching for them to find happiness. Instead, we are all too aware that this scene marks the beginning of the downhill slope to disaster.

Early in their encounter, Jocasta sums up the culture she inhabits: "This city, it is just borders and beliefs. It's about the old ways here. In this barrio -- we still lay hands and kill chickens and go to church and do what the shaman says. Look at the way we look, like our ancestors. We haven't changed. This ain't downtown -- it's the borderlands." Oedipus, his father's son in ways he cannot even suspect, dismisses such ideas, saying, "I don't want to have to believe in anything more than me." Jocasta replies, "Challenging God -- it's a little-boy thing. When you get older, you're going to beg for him." Nevertheless, she anoints him the new king of Laius' gang, igniting a power struggle with Creon that will destroy them all.

Under the notably clean, clear, and focused direction of Chay Yew, this timeless tale remains as gripping as ever. Among the staging's highlights are a simple tableau featuring the very pregnant Jocasta, alone, smoking a cigarette, illuminated only by the light of a television; a scene of birth that suddenly turns sinister as the baby is spirited away; and an imaginatively staged sequence, featuring UV light effects by the excellent designer Lap Chi Chu, in which three mysterious local healers are transformed into a dragon-like god whom Oedipus must interrogate. (It is in this scene that he is given the riddle that continues to reverberate down through the centuries, which Oedipus would do well not to answer.)

Every member of the cast has caught the distinct urban rhythm of Alfano's dialogue. Juan Castano, who made a good impression in a supporting role in A Parallelogram this summer, here takes center stage with confidence; his Oedipus is a callow youth who, before our eyes, grows into a monster of ambition. He partners beautifully with Delgado, who brings a seductive sexuality and natural authority to the role of Jocasta. Julio Monge's Tiresias is a creature of mysterious depths, even as he desperately tries to avert the inevitable. Also making solid contributions are Juan Francisco Villa as the cynical, corrupt Laius and Joel Perez as the indolent, entitled Creon.

Anita Yavich's costumes plausibly chart Oedipus' journey from prison orange to jeans and tank tops to all-white wedding garb; Delgado is attractively dressed throughout, especially in an all-white lace dress. Fabian Obispo's sound design mixes hip-hop and other pop selections, including the Heatwave classic, "Always and Forever," with a virtually nonstop progression of effects, including traffic, helicopters, the beating of bird wings, ambient restaurant voices, prison lockdown noises, and more.

"Can't you see? I wanted to make a new story," cries Oedipus when the end is near. As always, easier said than done, especially when you imperiously dismiss the gods and beliefs that rule your world. Then again, Alfano has taken one of the world's oldest stories and made it as new as today. That's a pretty mighty achievement all by itself; he delivers on the promise, made by the chorus, that the story of Oedipus is really a story about us. -- David Barbour

(25 October 2017)

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