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Oedipus El Rey

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 24, 2017

Juan Castano and Sandra Delgado
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bringing one of the classic Greek myths to life for a modern audience is a tricky venture. You can't just plunk Perseus, Icarus, Iphigenia, or Medea down into a 21st Century setting and let them find their own way. A successful retelling has to speak to contemporary theatergoers while retaining its ties to all of the elements that make these ancient tales what they are: mythical. This means paying due and respectful homage to the role of fate, mysticism, hubris, faith, defiance, free will, and inevitability. So bravo to Luis Alfaro, whose 2010 play Oedipus El Rey, which opened tonight in a galvanizing production at the Public Theater, brings the story of Oedipus to today's world while staying true to its roots.

As with most of his other works, Alfaro sets his Oedipus story in the Chicano barrios of Los Angeles. We begin, however, in one of California's state prisons, identifiable by Riccardo Hernandez's spare set, Fabian Obispo's ambient sound design, and Lap Chi Chu's institutional lighting. An orange-clad chorus of men enters and starts calling out to one another: Oye! Who's got a story? Something to pass the time.

The story that emerges is that of one of the prisoners, Oedipus (Juan Castano), who consorts with the widowed Queen Jocasta, rises to a position of great power, and then falls into the pre-destined abyss. And yes, the tale unfolds as it must. Oedipus unknowingly kills the man who is his father, marries the woman who is his mother, and eventually learns the truth, for which both he and his queen pay a terrible price that will be remembered for centuries.

In reconceptualizing the myth, Alfaro has chosen to focus on those aspects of the story that are usually noted only in passing but which serve here to anchor the play in very real human terms. Our Jocasta (Sandra Delgado) is married to Laius (Juan Francisco Villa), a brute of a man who is in charge of criminal activity in the barrio, where religion and superstition live side by side. When the local shaman predicts Laius's son will murder him, the kingpin himself takes the infant from Jocasta and orders one of his men to kill the boy. There is nothing matter-of-fact about this scene as we witness the devastation to Jocasta, who carries an unending bitterness inside for years, not knowing, of course, that her son lives after all. When the handsome stranger Oedipus shows up, and Laius dies in a fight out on the road somewhere, Jocasta finds herself falling deeply in love for perhaps the first time in her life. It is this love story that becomes the most richly developed section of the play, and it includes an extended nude scene that is both romantic and sexual, leaving little to the imagination on either count. In creating their own little universe, Ms. Delgado and Mr. Castano do a remarkable job of personalizing their characters and their love story.

The playwright has filled the work with layers of meaning and with strong connections between the mystic and the naturalistic, while all the while keeping it convincingly planted with one foot in the realm of the ancient and the other in the modern. The wonderful metaphor about blindness (physical, spiritual, and a stubborn refusal to see the truth) is developed along multiple paths, including one that makes the blind seer Tiresias (Julio Monge) a significant player. A few quibbles aside (too many tension-relieving jokey cultural references to such things as Jean Naté perfume, "The Days of Our Lives" soap opera, and doo-wop songs), Oedipus El Rey, under the astute guidance of director Chay Yew, is a well-conceived and original take on the Oedipus myth, nicely brought to fruition by a fine cast and production team.

Oedipus El Rey
Through December 3
Shiva Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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