'Oedipus el Rey' Shines Light on Modern Urban Tragedy

Photo: <b>Tragedy in Spanglish.</b> Luis Alfaro's confrontational adaptation of Sophocles's 'Oedipus Rex,' now playing at Magic Theatre, relocates the action to gritty modern Los Angeles.
Jennifer Reiley/Courtesy
Tragedy in Spanglish. Luis Alfaro's confrontational adaptation of Sophocles's 'Oedipus Rex,' now playing at Magic Theatre, relocates the action to gritty modern Los Angeles.

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The typical audience member at a Bay Area theater production is middle-aged, dressed up and proud to hold a privileged position as a member of the "arts community." Opening nights seem, to an observer, like a modest version of the 19th century French opera; instead of talking about scandalous affairs and imported perfumes, attendees now vaunt their Oscar predictions and discuss their children's art schools. The graying, impeccably dressed audience at the opening of "Oedipus el Rey" seemed amusingly uncertain how to respond to a production that, despite being a retelling of a classic Greek tragedy, featured a bilingual script, 360 degree nudity, and the page by page dismembering of a Bible.

Obviously, playwright Luis Alfaro took a bold approach to a story that pretty much everyone knows. Prophecied to someday murder his kingly father and marry his mother, young Oedipus eventually fulfills it in full. The message: You can't outrun fate.

In Alfaro's version, Oedipus is a young Chicano convict on the verge of being released from a Los Angeles prison. As the action starts, four of Oedipus's fellow convicts, dressed in orange jumpsuits, thread across the stage to call out interment raps about their man Oedipus, who they call un rey. They play the role of the Greek chorus, but instead of narrating the story, they fill up the theater with a kind of verbal impressionism, trading words and phrases, finishing each other's sentences in a kind of cooperative sparring match. These four eses are present throughout the story, playing various parts and constantly bringing attention to the themes of fate and power. They are there, crooning softly in the background, when unknowing Oedipus and his mother Jocasta embrace for the first time (baring it all in a shockingly earnest, lengthy and completely naked love scene). And they are present shortly thereafter when Oedipus and Jocasta marry, fulfilling the prophecy. In fact they even pull the audience into the act, yanking some members out of the front row for some celebratory dancing gone horribly, embarrassingly wrong.

"Oedipus el Rey" is overflowing with talk--talk of fate destiny, power and God, rapped and rhymed and sung and shouted on a little stage. Sometimes it rings hollow, feeling like too much talk and not enough substance. This may, however, simply be the effect of a play in which there are no set decorations. Instead of cluttering the stage with props, the directors left bare the sunken stage, made of recycled wooden planks and surrounded by seats on three sides.

Belatedly, there is Oedipus, played by Joshua Torrez. Torrez has the body of a man, but something about his face-the gap between his front teeth and his dark, wet eyes-gives him the look of a young boy. Raised by a prison prophet, Oedipus has reached the verge of manhood believing he is destined to be un rey. Torrez admirably convinces us that Oedipus is strong enough to become king of the barrio, but foolish enough to strive for king of the world.

But what makes him say, "I am more powerful than God"? The answer, I think, is that he's a young man. The play is a meditation on youth and masculinity. Oedipus is cocky, defiant and foolish, but he's a driver, a force who triggers action and reaction. There's something inspiring, disgusting and important about the confidence of a young man and how uncontested, unproven power can shake up the world.

No doubt, the Magic Theatre audience was shaken up. While Alfaro seemed to revel in assaulting the audience, the reaction was generally positive, but unavoidably confused. But despite the violence, the Spanglish and the young Chicano thugs, all spectators walked out peacefully when the lights went back on. It is both a gift and a curse to give people a safe taste of this violence. It allows us to see a kind of life that most of us have never experienced, yet the setting is so comfortable. In a gritty work like this one, theatrical realism can become a superficial substitute for experience. This is the sad beauty of the stage, which can transport a satisfied audience to a world they'd never consider visiting beyond the theater.

Nick Moore is the lead theater critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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