Fourteenth show of 2010: Oedipus el Rey, Magic Theatre, February 3.
Classic plays don’t get much more classic than Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex. Freud’s theories aside, if you’re not familiar with the sad tale of the guy became king by unknowingly killing his father and marrying his mother, I don’t know where you’ve been for the last 2,500 years. It’s an oft-told tale and also a frequently adapted one, and now MacArthur “genius” grantee Luis Alfaro takes it on in the Magic Theatre’s world premiere of Oedipus el Rey.
A National New Play Network world premiere, Alfaro’s play will open in Pasadena the same weekend the Magic production closes, and then heads to Washington, DC in the fall. That production will be directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, who staged a Los Angeles workshop production of the play in 2008.
Here in San Francisco it’s artfully staged by Magic artistic director Loretta Greco, and holy shazam, is it a stunner. Greco’s dynamic, tightly choreographed production plays out on a bare stage, with a four-man chorus lined up or looking in at the corners when not taking on one role or another.
Alfaro’s updated version starts with four men in prison orange lined up, and one young man drops and does push-ups, hardly seeming to notice being kicked in the stomach. The rear door opens, and a blind prisoner walks in tapping his cane, and is greeted and guided by the young man. You might think for a moment that the blind man is Oedipus, with his story to be told in flashback, but our hero is actually the muscular young man with him.
We do go back from there, however, to the birth of Oedipus, whose father Laius is told that the baby about to be born will someday kill him. He orders the baby taken off and killed, but the henchman chosen to do the deed instead raises the child as his own—and when the boy gets in trouble and go to jail, he commits a crime to get locked up with him. The blind man in prison is a sort of hybrid of three characters in Sophocles’ original: the servant who abandons the baby instead of killing him, the shepherd who raises him, and the blind seer Tiresias who reveals to Oedipus what he’s done.
As soon as Oedipus Gomez gets out of stir, he gets in a right-of-way dispute with some jerk on the road and ends up beating him to death. Oedipus’ unwitting patricide is among the earliest known accounts of road rage, and it’s updated here with stark brutality, two chorus members carrying the headlights of opposing cars as the two men rumble.
Joshua Torrez hits just the right mixture of boyish naïveté and explosive volatility as Oedipus, whose hubris takes the form of declaring himself more powerful than God. Though his trash-talking is meant literally, as when he tears pages out of a bible, the point is really that he believes himself to be master of his own destiny, forging his own path, when in fact he’s just moving along the track that fate prepared for him before he was born. Few have been dealt a hand as fucked-up as the one Oedipus was given.
Romi Dias is a fierce Jocasta, wrenching in her grief, electrifying in her sexuality and devastating in her sense of inevitable tragedy. Their love scene is beautifully staged with aching tenderness and vulnerability (and some nudity, which may be relevant if you’re contemplating a school field trip). Although there’s no way she’s anywhere near old enough to be Oedipus’s mother, the only part that seems in any way off is her plaintive tone when she’s making excuses for Oedipus’s thirst for power, simply because she’s always been so formidable before.
Led compellingly by Carlos Aguirre, though really functioning as a unit, the four-man chorus of prisoners fulfills its classic role in Greek tragedy to comment on the action, particularly in the prologue and epilogue and as a series of dreamlike visions in masks. (The striking costumes are by Alex Jaeger, with marvelously elaborate black-ink tattoos by Jacquelyn Scott.) Eric Avilés oozes menacing machismo as gangland king and Oedipus’s father Laius.
Marc David Pinate carries stoic gravity as Tiresias, and Armando Rodriguez is just callow enough as Jocasta’s brother Cleon so that we can take his concerns about Oedipus seriously without thinking for a moment that he himself is cut out to lead—which the rest of Sophocles’ trilogy aptly demonstrated that he wasn’t.
As eloquent as they are, some of the poetic philosophical speeches and debates go on a little long, and the epilogue is a tad abrupt. By and large, however, Alfaro’s script is a knockout, contemporary and timeless at the same time, leavened with humor and packed with stunning insight. “I don’t keep pictures,” Jocasta tells Oedipus. “I don’t have any good memories. Why would I want to look at that?”
You know how people say they liked a show, but it didn’t blow them away? This one blew me away.
The only problem is that, despite the propulsive music by L.A. Latin outfit Very Be Careful and haunting resonant guitar by Ava Mendoza used in the production, for some reason I’ve had the Tom Lehrer song “Oedipus Rex” stuck in my head for days. (“I’d rather marry a duck-billed platypus than end up like old Oedipus Rex.”) Occupational hazard.
Oedipus el Rey
Through February 28
Fort Mason Center, Building D
San Francisco, CA
UPDATE: The show has been extended through March 14.