On a bare stage, a brutal Chicano drug lord watches his wife give birth, then shoots her up with heroin so she won’t realize he’s getting rid of the baby. A fortune-teller had said the kid would grow up to kill his dad, and in this L.A. barrio, no kingpin takes chances. He hands the infant off to his lieutenant with orders to make the baby disappear. For almost two decades, the baby does disappear—onto the harsh streets of another barrio, then into juvie, and ultimately into prison. But this kid’s name being Oedipus, there’s no stopping him from killing his father, a fate determined as much by gang culture as by the gods in playwright Luis Alfaro’s visceral update of Greek myth.
Make that update and reconsideration. Alfaro’s script for Oedipus El Rey takes serious liberties with the story, finding much of its drama in action Sophocles left offstage, reordering events, altering motivations and characters, dealing with religion in ethnically intriguing ways, and teasing urban ferocity from a time-honored tale by recasting hubris as the arrogance of youth.
Alfaro’s hardly the first to contemporize this tale, but he’s one of the few to try to turn its Freudian implications into sociological ones. You see the barrio’s influence everywhere—in a widow’s fierce mourning and isolation, in the bonds of family, in the fiefdoms and fist-bumps of the drug world.And having grown up in prison, Oedipus (Andres Munar) is an outsider, learning rules as he goes, and making mistakes.
That Oedipus is barely out of his teens—cared for in the pen by a blind convict (Gerard Ender) he thinks is his father, virginal as he reaches to touch the breasts Jocasta (Romi Diaz) has bared, murmuring “teach me” through tears—goes a long way toward making this story work in contemporary terms. There’s a smoldering, telenovela heat to Oedipus and Jocasta’s love (“I look at you and I feel like a sentence just got finished”), one that goes well beyond the playwright’s machinations.
Things get trickier when Alfaro has to come up with modern equivalents for, say, the Sphinx (barrio faith healers) and its riddle, but his solutions are clever, and are made credible by director Michael John Garcés in a staging that blends candle-lit spirituality and matter-of-fact brutality into a plausibly raw, modern myth.