By Luis Alfaro
Directed by Chay Yew
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
“No one should be considered fortunate until dead.” – Greek Maxim
The fifth century B.C.E. is not the present-day Los Angeles borderlands: although the bones of Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Rex” engaged the citizenry of Athens, urban America needs a Phoenix-like rebirth and retelling of the ancient tale to affect an authentic catharsis. Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey,” currently running at The Public’s Shiva Theater, deconstructs the classic distilling it to its essence and reconstructs the tragedy with a painful and sometimes disquieting relevance to metamodernism.
Oedipus (Juan Castano) is serving time in a California State Prison and is about to be released. His father Tiresias (Julio Monge) remains in prison but has prepared his son for this new phase in his life. Oedipus wants to “be something more,” “a man of principle,” “a man with a plan,” “a man with no limits.” He is the playwright’s Everyman who seeks to break free of all systems that oppress, and discriminate, and incarcerate. The Coro (Chorus) provides much of the exposition needed to ready the audience for Oedipus’s journeys to Highway 99, Calle Broadway in Los Angeles, and ultimately to La Casa at 1324 Toberman Street in Pico-Union, Los Angeles, the barrio where, after inadvertently killing his real father Laius (Juan Francisco Villa), and battling his jealous uncle Creon (Joel Perez), he tragically weds his birth mother Jocasta (Sandra Delgado).
Although “Oedipus El Rey” contains scenes highly reminiscent of “Oedipus Rex,” it is important to remember that Mr. Alfaro’s play is something new and transcendent. His Oedipus struggles with Fate and the Parliament of Owls, challenges the Tribunal of Los Healers, and confounds the Sphinx. The focus on the love between Oedipus and Jocasta (before he knows she is his birth mother) is refreshing and transformative. Oedipus challenges her to expose her loneliness and her need for “protection” and “love.” Under Chay Yew’s sensitive direction, Mr. Castano and Ms. Delgado bring the depth of ethos and pathos to their “falling in love” scene between Oedipus and Jocasta (intimacy direction by UnkleDave’s Fight House).
In his initial conversations with Jocasta, it is touching to hear Oedipus rehearse all that he learned while in prison: he completed his G. E. D. “I didn’t cheat. It took me a while, but I got through it. I also got some training in things,” he tells Jocasta. “Serving food. Fixing cars. Cooking. Cleaning.” This is an Oedipus, brilliantly and beautifully portrayed by Juan Castano, who does not want to be defined by his past and who refuses to be controlled by deities or fates. Jocasta, portrayed with a hopefulness rooted in tradition, warns Oedipus, “You might think you have the power to make the world you want to make, but there’s someone upstairs pulling your strings. You think you got here on your own? We all got destiny. We all got a story that was written for us a long time ago. We’re just characters in a book. We’re already history and we just started living. Our story has already been told. Were fated.”
Riccardo Hernandez’s sliding prison doors set counterpoints the themes of imprisonment to institutions and ideas and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting splashes the stage with pools of sensuality, reconciliation, redemption, and release. Director Chay Yew’s exhilarating staging is supported by Fabian Obispo’s haunting original music and sound design.
Luis Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” raises rich and enduring questions, some timeless, some relevant to the current socio-economic environment. Do all choices involve consequences? Is it possible to choose to do something without experiencing consequences? Is there a difference between ‘destiny’ and ‘fate?” What is that difference? Has our story, as Jocasta believes, been already told or can we, as Oedipus hoped, begin a new story? Or the even richer question raised by the Chorus (Reza Salazar, Brian Quijada, and Joel Perez), “Can we live the story not yet told, and the possibility not yet imagined? Or are we fated?” And, for all of these questions, do the “answers” necessitate “either-or” responses?
Also compelling is one of Oedipus’s final questions, “Do we have to believe everything they tell us?” Equally compelling is the question of the Coro, “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?” The answers to those questions filter out of the theatre with the audience as members grapple with this new and transformative myth that invites new stories brimming with resistance.