Far too often classic works are left untouched, gathering dust and losing their intended impact. However “Oedipus el Rey” not only revamps Sophocles’ famous morality tale, but also injects the fire, grit and vivacity that reside in the deepest caverns of human nature. This electric Chicano retelling runs until March 6 at the Woolley Mammoth Theatre where tickets start at 35 dollars.
Impeccably written by Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro (previous co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative and chairman of the Gay Men of Color Consortium) and directed by Michael John (Garcés) the play gracefully takes the story of Oedipus and updates it, setting it in present day Southern California. The play remains faithful to the Greek work in which an ambitious King is told that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The hero tragically does just this, unknowingly, in his attempt to cheat fate and rise above the will of the Gods.
The honest and bold portrayal, performed by an all-Hispanic cast, chooses to take less time on the aftermath of Oedipus’ hubris — rather it focuses on his rise to royalty, his fall into Fate’s cruel hands and the act of reckless violence and sexuality from which we are traditionally kept safely distanced.
The show is vibrant and excels in its use of staging, lights and design. A thin cross-like stage serves as the setting of both the prison where the play begins and where Oedipus blindly adheres to Fate’s prophecy. The stage is sparse but makes smart use of grates, metal bars and a rust dominated color pallet. Ominous reverberating clanks of metal transport the viewers into an unfamiliar, ethereal world. Two balconies ornamented with prayer candles are ever-present, reminding the viewer that the Gods (in this case those of the Catholicism and Chicano tradition) are always watching. Costumes are wonderfully understated and are juxtaposed with vivid tribal tattoos, starkly inked on the inmates who deliver the protagonist’s fate that work as grand images of the Divine.
The show succeeds but stops short of greatness. Andres Munar stars as Oedipus and is textually required to be physically strong as well as comfortable fulfilling the fully nude sex scene that is anything but subtle. The cast was solid, no one person shining more brightly than another. However the acting never matches the raw realism of the text.
The performances may have been crisp, clean and well-rehearsed but they lacked the vulnerability and nuance for which the script begged. Had the chorus (or Coro) been more highly stylized and the leads been pushed to exist honestly within their characters rather than represent them than the audience would have been breathless.
Despite this, the show is still a must see for anyone willing to face it. Ultimately “El Rey” creates an ethereal yet grounded world dominated by destiny that allows rare and poignant insight into the forbidden eroticism, emotional brutality and stinging anguish that the ancient material only implies. The show forces the viewer to face the darkest corners of humanity and will leave the audience questioning their own desires and capabilities.