BWW Review: OEDIPUS EL REY at Magic Theatre Offers a Hauntingly Beautiful and Timely Update of the Oedipus Tale
Let me be clear from the start that I understand why Greek tragedies might not be high on your list of plays you feel compelled to see. They typically employ choruses speaking in highfalutin poetry, the characters can be hard to empathize with, and the plots are, well, pretty outlandish. In the case of Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex" (spoiler alert!), the title character murders his father, sleeps with his mother, and then gouges his own eyes out. A little hard to relate to, no? The stunning production of Luis Alfaro's "Oedipus El Rey" (his reimagining of the Oedipus story) currently running at the Magic Theatre might make you want to reconsider. It's visually arresting, genuinely moving, and slyly humorous - oh, and also seriously sexy, all in a taut 95-minute running time. The Magic presented the world premiere of this play back in 2010 and is bringing it back in this new production as a legacy revival. Given the current, unsettling political discourse on immigrants, this revival could not feel more timely.
While retaining the basic plot and characters of the Sophocles original from circa 430 BC, Alfaro resets the story within the present-day Latinx community, initially among a group of inmates in the Kern County state prison before moving the action downstate, ending in South Central LA. It is clear from the wealth of cultural detail in Alfaro's nuanced writing that he has intimate knowledge of both prison life and the Pico-Union barrio where the characters meet their eventual fate. This ultimately benefits the theatergoer as it allows a seemingly remote and preposterous ancient tale to take on a new life and currency. By making his characters and setting so specific, he also makes them universal. While I can imagine this production speaking specifically to the Chicano community and/or anyone who's had first-hand experience with the correctional system, you don't need to fall within either of those demographics to be profoundly moved by this play.
Instead of cardboard royalty figures declaiming in poetic monologues, we are given relatable, deeply human, deeply flawed characters who are caught in a narrative beyond their control. Each character is grounded in everyday, specific behavior that makes them recognizable in our contemporary world and also helps make their actions understandable. This is not to imply, however, that Alfaro has turned the Oedipus story into a docudrama. His writing skillfully alternates intimate, grounded scenes with passages of short, elliptical incantations for a chorus of prisoners and healers.
The play is beautifully directed by Loretta Greco, working with a totally bare stage yet still managing to create a variety of haunting stage pictures. The play opens in total darkness as we hear the strains of Jake Rodriguez' evocative and eclectic soundscape of ambient sounds shifting into music. The luminous lighting of Wen-Ling Liao, and the judicious use of minimal props and impressionistic projections by Hana Kim work in tandem to create a variety of shifting locales. For example, within this spare aesthetic, a single strand of lights is used to convincingly and charmingly conjure a backyard space for a family wedding celebration. The apt costumes by Ulises Alcala consist largely of prison uniforms and streetwear before shifting slightly to a more stylized look as the play reaches its tragic conclusion.
The 6-member cast is exceptional across the board. They work as a seamless ensemble, each knowing when it's their moment to shine and when to recede into the background. Four actors do double duty as chorus and a variety of individual characters, including two father figures. Sean San Jose as Tiresias combines paternal warmth with a chilling reticence that signals he knows to all too well the ultimate fate of his son. Gendell Hing-Hernandez as Laius uses his slight stature and tightly-coiled body language to suggest a man grown weary and defensive from punching above his weight his whole life. Esteban Carmona in the title role seems at first perhaps a bit too naïve and undamaged for someone who has spent virtually his entire life in the correctional system, but then again that is true to the essential character of Oedipus. He has too much faith in his power to create his own destiny and is too full of himself to see what's coming. Lorraine Velez as Jocasta is simply astonishing. Her deep, sad eyes and slack body posture speak of a woman who is living in her own daily hell and suspects that even deeper pain is always just around the corner. As she gradually falls for Oedipus, though, her eyes begin to sparkle and she exudes a sense of joy that only makes the inevitable tragic ending all the more heart-rending when it comes.
Alfaro's most haunting speech also belong to Jocasta: "We're border people. We've always been. It's who we are. We're the stuff underneath the cement." I don't know if this language was part of the play as originally written a decade ago, but it carries multiple meanings - that this community exists on the borders of society, its place in this world is the lowest rung on the ladder, literally beneath everything else. It can also be interpreted to mean that this community has existed long before Los Angeles, and indeed the United States, paved over indigenous cultures. Within that notion is also a testament of strength. This community is hardy, has endured since time immemorial and cannot be erased, no matter how a country's borders shift.
There is a startling coup de theatre early in the show that visually sets the haunting tone for the rest of the play. A door in the back wall of the theater suddenly bursts open to the outside world and lets in a blinding shaft of light backed only by the silver-blue, softly undulating waves of San Francisco Bay at sunset. Into this shaft of light enters a figure, first visible only in silhouette, then gradually becoming a 3-dimensional human being as he walks downstage. That brief transition beautifully distills what this production is all about.
"Oedipus El Rey" runs through Sunday, June 23rd at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Bldg. D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco, CA 94123. Tickets and further information available at www.MagicTheatre.org or by calling (415) 441-8822.
Photos by Jennifer Reiley