A Classical Tragedy Reinvented: Oedipus in the L.A. Barrio
Transplanting a classic stage work from its accustomed surroundings—especially crossing ethnic boundaries—is not for the faint of heart. Orson Welles successfully put Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Harlem with an all-black cast in 1936, and, more recently, Michael Mayer confected a less critically lauded “Rat-Pack Rigoletto” set in 1960s Las Vegas for the Met. But as tempting as such undertakings may seem, they are fraught with risk.Playwright Luis Alfaro has bravely taken the story of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and reimagined it in contemporary Southern California’s Chicano culture. His Oedipus is born not in Thebes but in Los Angeles, and instead of coming of age in the royal household of Corinth, he learns his trade in Kern County’s California State Prison.
On Saturday (March 14), the San Diego Repertory Theatre opened its new production of Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey on the Lyceum Stage. Filled with Spanish slang and barrio swagger, Oedipus el Rey recounts a story nearly everyone knows in a fresh context, creating a credible emotional cauldron that infuses an ancient tale with immediacy and vivd realism.At the outset, Leandro Cano’s Laius easily dominates the stage. The brutish leader of a family business that efficiently transforms stolen luxury vehicles into quickly fenced parts, he is a king of sorts in the barrio. But he is nervous about the oft-mentioned Salvadoreans who are encroaching on his territory. Especially in his menacing physical affection towards Mónica Sánchez’s Jocasta, Cano flashes his power in even the smallest gestures. Sánchez has fused smoldering sexuality with a world-weary coat of armor, a defense she gradually relinquishes after she encounters Oedipus.
We first see Oedipus, the nimble Lakin Valdez, exercising in the prison yard with his fellow inmates under the watchful eye of Matt Orduña’s Tiresias, whom Oedipus believes to be his father. Just before Oedipus is to be released from prison, Tiresias advises him to make a new start in Las Vegas, but sternly warns him against making his way back to Los Angeles.
Alfaro questions the young man’s decision to drive to L.A.—is he fated to carry out the prediction ofpatricide announced to Laius before his birth, or will his own decisions lead him down that path? While members of the audience ponder this conundrum, Oedipus drives south on California highway 99, encounters Laius going the other direction and kills him in a fit of road rage. Once in L.A., Oedipus begs temporary lodging from Creon, craftily developed by Jorge Rodriguez as a schemer who hides behind a façade of casual indifference. He unenthusiastically grants Oedipus’s request, but issues him another stern warning that Creon’s sister Jocasta is “off limits” for many reasons, including her mourning the recent death of her husband.
Once Oedipus breaks through Jocasta’s initial frosty dismissal, the romance blossoms into the ill-fated marriage, and Valdez quickly rachets up his maturation from the timid stranger daunted by the big city to a snarling, macho enforcer who takes over Laius’s business ventures with the ferocity and speed he beds Jocasta. In equally short time Creon, feeling he has been cheated from inheriting his brother-in-law’s social and business position, executes sufficient offstage sleuthing to uncover the true identity of Oedipus. His revelation, of course, leads to the same tragic denouement Sophocles demanded 2500 years ago: Jocasta’s suicide and Oedipus gouging out his eyes to match his moral blindness with physical blindness.
Two additional actors, Spencer Smith and Dave Rivas, played members of the requisite chorus and several smaller roles. Rivas’ soothsayer and mystic conveyed gravitas and a definite connection with the spirit world.
Rep Artistic Director Sam Woodhouse’s relentlessly paced production surmounted the script’s inherent challenge to unfold timeless themes of classic tragedy in a contemporary setting replete with familiar symbols. Although the offhand banter of the play’s opening scenes seemed to suggest the mood of improvised street theater, by the time Cano and Sanchez were trading their passionate threats, Woodhouse had shifted into a more deeply focused tragic ethos.
Yoon Bae’s spare, single unit set—like that of San Diego Opera’s recent Don Giovanni production—allowed an uninterrupted flow of dramatic energy to propel the play to its uncompromising resolution without those irksome delays of set changes. Abstract panels that dropped from above and Lonnie Alcaraz’s quickly modulated lighting that featured dark, ominous hues evoked the emotional landscape of scenes. Alfaro did not overlook the play’s otherworldly dimensions, and the Aztec-like masks of the three riddling sphinxes proved apt choices, a more serious symbol juxtaposed against Creon’s omnipresent plastic take-out container of his beloved horchata.Spare prison and barrio uniforms came easily to costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings, but she gifted Jocasta with a wardrobe of glamorous attire that appeared both ancient and contemporary. Larry Stein’s sound, as spare as the stage design, effectively deployed eerie electronic sounds.
San Diego Repertory Theatre’s extravagant, joyful production of In the Heights a few seasons ago provided a tourist’s joyride through New York City’s Washington Heights barrio, but who can remember what that slender story was about? Alfaro takes his audience on a much more profound journey into Southern California’s Latino communities. I saw a production of Oedipus el Rey at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater in the summer of 2012, and the work has haunted my memory ever since.
This review of this play staged by the San Diego Repertory Theatre at the Lyceum Stage in Horton Plaza is based on the 7:00 p.m. performance on 15 March 2015. The production continues through Sunday, March 29, 2015. For times and dates see www.sdrep.org.
Thank you for your writing, Ken!