The painted wall and the panels of jailhouse bars tell a whole story before the first actor even jumps up onto the Shiva stage at The Public Theater. It’s a story of cultural imprisonment regardless of setting. How Greek tragedy and destiny equals American power dynamics and discrimination. In the thrilling new Oedipus el Rey, a beautiful and powerful mural with the Virgin Mary takes Center stage. It’s culturally specific and definitely Catholic, but by no means Greek. As Anna Deavere Smith spoke so extensively and powerfully about in Second Stage’s Notes from the Field as did Dominique Morisseau in Lincoln Center Theater’s Pipeline, so does the Public’s Oedipus el Rey, by layering underneath a growing Greek storm cloud of mythology, the rain and wind of the Latino pipeline that leads these souls from “borders and beliefs” to violent gangs and prison. These characters are all living behind bars essentially, that slide into place regardless of where they find themselves. Is this fate, we are asked, or is it just systematic oppression?
Clearly, this is a SoCa Latino-flavored reimagining of the famous Athenian tragedy written by Sophocles (first performed around 429 BC). It is a hurricane of a story that has inspired a famed psychoanalytic complex and a whole stack of psychotherapeutic textbooks devoted to its relational meaning. This time though, it is brought to the stage by acclaimed playwright Luis Alfaro (Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles) with an extremely creative stance by director Chay Yew (Public’s Durango). The prisoners jump start the proceedings with a Greek chorus style barrage of quick sharp dialogue setting the thematic and stylistic stage for all that this storm will rain down on these people.
Swirling around the wild streets of South Central L.A., Oedipus is like a storm brewing, highly charged and powerful. Found standing defiantly in the middle of a circle of light, , surrounded by his less powerfully intoxicating peers, this Oedipus is a chiseled and strong young Latino man doing push-ups and sit-ups aggressively. Played confidently and intensely by the handsome Juan Castano, the talented actor, who gave 2ST’s Parallelogram some much needed heat and sexuality, does the same with this ancient plot.
We know his story from the very beginning. It is re-told efficiently and passionately by a stellar group of actors donning numerous different hats in and out of the prison setting. We are told and shown how Laius the ‘King’, strongly portrayed by Juan Francesco Villa (The Play About My Dad) discards Oedipus just after his birth. He tries with desperation to derail the prophecy that his son will grow up and murder him in a face-to-face duel, but only we seem to know how futile that is. Passing the infant boy off to his faithful right hand man, Tiresias, solidly played by Julio Monge (LCT’s Twelfth Night) to do the deadly deed, the King returns to ruling his neighborhood without fear or anxiety. The baby’s mother, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado) grieves for her lost son, but life goes on in this particular hood of South Central. The King is still King, and he rules his blocks ruthlessly.
Years later, in prison, Oedipus believes Tiresias, who couldn’t do what was asked of him so many years ago, is his father, and together doing time behind bars, they bond. Once released, as if pulled by god and destiny, or by some systematic oppression of the Latino man, he runs into his real father in the dangerous South Central of L.A. unbeknownst to either one or anyone else. And ‘like father, like son’, their hot headed-ness results in a hand-to-hand battle to the death, fulfilling one part of the prophecy, with the second part destined to be enacted upon.
We all know how this will turn out once the storm hits, but within this intricate retelling, we have a change of focus. Without imposing a different meaning on the old text, Alfaro asks a different dramatic question: where do we find the fire and intensity in this tale? He places the epicenter of the storm solidly around the more famous and compromised relationship, the one that Freud himself found most intriguing; the one between grieving mother and the son who brings back love and fulfillment into her world. The Jocasta-Oedipus love story has always existed but only by implication with the text, and here in this deeper examination, we find the electricity.
It doesn’t take long for Oedipus, with the reluctant help of an old prison acquaintance, Creon, to be unknowingly reunited with his mother. His friendship with Creon, poorly directed and played with comic silliness by Joel Perez (Fun Home, New Group’s Sweet Charity) is the least effective relationship and connection. How they know each other or why Oedipus seeks him out is only casually mentioned early on, forcing us to believe the coincidence mainly because we must. The real fire though is inside that home where Jocasta, brilliantly played by the fearless and fiery Delgado (Teatro Vista’s La Havana Madrid) mourns. The reunion is plain eruptive, sensual and erotic, both her and Oedipus stripping themselves naked before our eyes as they fall deeply into each other’s soul. Jocasta speaks of a void being filled by Oedipus, and we, the only ones privy to the incestual knowledge, hold our breath and wait. The outcome is destined.
The look and feel of this production is as simple as it is powerful. The streets of L.A. are brought to impeccably vitalic life by lighting designer, Lap Chi Chu (The Wolves), with exciting and dynamic original music and sound design by Fabian Obispo (Public’s Two Sisters and a Piano). With the impressive backdrop and creative use of sliding bars by scenic designer, Riccardo Hernandez (Broadway’s Indecent), and costumes by Anita Yavich (Broadway’s Fool for Love), the team is firing all engines driving the piece forward at a solid and aggressive pace.
The piece slows down a bit after the embrace and love making of the two central figures in a circle of white light. Maybe a lot of the power of this story is fueled by the coming of the storm, and once the eye of the hurricane is overhead, a quiet moment exists. There is a bit of fun theatrics with the oracles of the hood, and the riddle that we all know, and the stagecraft for Oedipus to solve it is solidly orchestrated. The battle with the serpent, as with most of the fights could use some tightening up (fight and intimacy direction by Unkle Dave’s Fight House) but the effects overall work their magic. By the end of the play, after the truth finally comes to light, Jocasta and Oedipus are destroyed. The patricide and incest is too horrific to withstand. As with all good ancient tragedies, the ability to control one’s own destiny, no matter how hard Oedipus tries to soar above, is found to be useless. The storm engulfed him, and he finds himself trapped, just like everyone else in this old story, by fate, history, violence, and love. No one is going to get out unscathed in Oedipus el Rey, this we know from the beginning, except for maybe all these wonderfully talented artists involved in this powerful and electrifying production.
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