Oedipus El Rey

by Maya Phillips

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday October 24, 2017

Oedipus El Rey

It's a classic of the page and stage, Sophocles' tale of a man who, in the act of trying to avoid a prophecy, meets his fate by killing his father and marrying his mother to claim his place as king. But what if this happened in modern-day California, in the midst of Chicano gangs? Then you'd have "Oedipus El Rey," directed by Chay Yew and now playing at The Public Theater.

"Oedipus El Rey," written by playwright Luis Alfaro, doesn't stray too far from the original story: When gang-king Laius (Juan Francisco Villa) hears a prophecy that his wife, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), will give birth to a son who will kill him, he orders his second-in-command, Tiresias (Julio Monge), to kill the infant after he's born. Unwilling to kill the boy, who he names Oedipus, Tiresias secretly raises him as his own son and tries to steer him away from his fate. However, when Oedipus (Juan Castano) fails to heed Tiresias' warnings, he ultimately seals his fate.

From the onset, it's clear that we're moving this story from ancient Greece and transplanting it in urban California. The lighting and music throughout bring vibrancy and life to the otherwise industrial staging, which features a graffiti-covered brick wall in the background, in front of which slide metal grates with vertical prison bars.

The most interesting parts of "Oedipus El Rey," as in any adaptation, are the ways in which the play adheres to or expands upon the original source material. Though Alfaro's script is his own, with lines incorporating both English and Spanish, for example, it very much channels the spirit of Sophocles. Alfaro's play has a chorus that appears as inmates and street thugs, and his characters ask the same questions as the Greeks: Is anyone in charge of their own fate?

There are even prophets and healers, omens and mystical beasts in Alfaro's play, though they take surprising forms. Dazzling lights, dramatic sound and artful costuming and choreography all come together to create the prophetic creatures that speak to Oedipus at night or the sphinx that challenges Oedipus before he takes the throne.

The incorporation of the mystical elements into the show initially feels jarring, jerking the play away from the real. But those elements ultimately work because of the way "Oedipus El Rey" creates its own cultural mythology, conflating elements of the Greek mythology with contemporary Los Angeles Chicano culture to create its own particular stylistic flairs.

"Oedipus El Rey" also builds upon the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta in a way the original didn't, providing insight into how the incestuous union came to be. With a scene that builds toward the seduction of the queen followed by a fully nude consummation scene, "Oedipus El Rey" dares to train a close eye on the taboo and make it real to the story.

Delgado brings a wanting and vulnerability to the unlucky queen, though the script's heavy foreshadowing in her dialogue lays it on too thick. The same is true for the chorus, who speak the themes of the play too loudly and too frequently, particularly in the beginning -- though, to be fair, that was the way of Greek drama.

Still, the actors in the chorus, who sometimes speak in unison and sometimes speak in a quick trade-off of words and phrases, frequently feel like they're getting lulled into the rhythm of their recitation, and there isn't enough life behind the words.

Castano, too, as Oedipus, comes across as stiff and sometimes awkward, as though he's yet to inhabit the role fully. Joel Perez, as Jocasta's brother, Creon, is a fun antagonist who owns his time onstage, but Perez occasionally gets wrapped up in his own performance of his character's stock brand of villainy.

The most impressive part of "Oedipus El Rey," however, is not its visual elements or its interpretation of Sophocles' original work, but rather how it builds upon Sophocles' existential questions about the nature of humanity and grounds them in important social commentary about incarceration and people of color. The Hispanic inmates, as the Greek chorus, ask who owns their story, if they can tell their own story, if they can change it.

Oedipus tries to make an honest living and follow the path Tiresias set for him but quickly realizes he has few to no options as a former inmate. Is failure inevitable? Perhaps the way this Oedipus' story ends the same way as Sophocles' did, with the same cards stacked up against him. Either way, "Oedipus El Rey" is an engaging new take on an old story -- even when you already know how it ends.

"Oedipus El Rey" runs through December 3 at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St. For information or tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.