Wow. After seeing Oedipus El Rey at The Public Theater, I don’t begrudge playwright Luis Alfaro his MacArthur Fellowship. It’s also known as the "Genius" Grant, but the MacArthur folk don’t like it when you call it that. In this case, however, it definitely applies. Alfaro takes the Oedipus story and sets it in the modern day Chicano gang culture of Southern California which is something only he would do, and it works brilliantly.
The balance of old and new, Greek and modern theater is subtle but definite. And if you know anything about ancient Greek theater, a delight to discover. But don’t worry – if you know nothing about ancient Greek theater it won’t trouble you. Riccardo Hernandez's set is decidedly modern, but spare. Covering the bare brick wall at the back of the stage is a large hand-painted mural of decidedly Mexican origin with signature flowers and a large Virgin Mary in the middle. The only other thing on the stage are a few floor to ceiling sets of vertical iron bars that move on a horizontal plane.
They clearly represent jail cells as orange suited inmates wander on stage and into the aisles of the audience, escorted by their keepers, the stage hands in uniforms and walkie-talkies before the house lights go down. An announcement comes over the loudspeaker, “Lights out in 2 minutes, all cell phones are to be powered down and put away or they will be confiscated.” And the guards and inmates stare menacingly at the audience as we titter nervously.
And we’re off. The 5 inmates begin a familiar call and response ritual, “Oye!” “Que?” “Oye!” “Que?” shouted one by one then together. “Who got a story?” It’s a resonant beginning as the chorus of men clamor for a story they haven’t heard. Something about them and how they got there. A story that won’t confuse them. Something they can understand. Tell me a story, mommy. These hard men in orange with tattoos peeking out from the sleeves of their shirts, speaking in stychomythic verse like Sophocles' ancient Greek chorus.
They spy young Oedipus (Juan Castano), working out in the yard, shirtless. And they want to know, “Who is this man?” “Quien es este hombre” That’s the story they want. This boy who grew up in prison without a father, but with a father by his side. A man who made the prison library his home and wanted to be someone. Who wanted to shape his own destiny, beat the system.
As the telling begins, the chorus members morph into the characters in the story. One becomes Tiresius (Julio Monge), young Oedipus’ beloved, blind, prison father who has followed him into jail in order to teach and protect him. But who has kept from him the most important facts of his own lineage. And when Oedipus gets released from prison before Tiresius, and ignores his directive to avoid his old stomping grounds in LA, one becomes Laius (Juan Francisco Villa). In Oedipus El Rey, Laius is the barrio drug king who is told by the healer El Sobador (Reza Salazar) that his unborn son is going to kill him.
And the story unfolds from there. Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex picks up the story after the main prophecies regarding Oedipus’ deeds have come true and deals with the aftermath. Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, is a love story that starts at the beginning and doesn’t end until everyone knows the full truth. Who they are and what they have done. A modern day tragedy that explores the nature of fate, destiny, society and self-determination and how much control we have over any of it.
I was profoundly moved by this play. The vision and artistry of the playwright, Luis Alfaro. The strength of the cast and the excellence of the production values. Not to mention the incredible courage of the actors playing Oedipus and Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), and the sensitivity and deftness of the direction by Chay Yew, all combined to produce an experience I keep hearing and seeing in my head. In the end, it keeps coming back to the same thing. There’s no way to spare us pain. But the only way to set us free is the complete and unvarnished truth. Something we’re in short supply of these days.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"Mr. Alfaro’s version is both a reiteration of a classic tale and an invitation to flip the script. It is a grim and dynamic reminder that we are living in a political moment when stories matter, old ones and new ones, true ones and fake ones."
Alexis Soloski for New York Times
"It takes a while for Alfaro to find Sophocles, for director Chay Yew to find Alfaro and for all the actors to find one another. But when they eventually do, it turns out those old Greek timbers are more than ready to catch fire again."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
External links to full reviews from popular press...