We Love Arts: Oedipus el Rey

Oedipus El Rey at Woolly Mammoth

Jocasta and Oedipus (Romi Diaz and Andres Munar)
by Stan Barouh for Woolly Mammoth, used with permission

Oedipus. We all know the myth. Ill-fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The solver of the riddle of the Sphinx. Pride before fall. Blinded at the end.

Now take that myth, rattle it in Zeus’s dice cup, and roll it out into a barrio in LA. Throw in gang culture, incarceration, full nudity and onstage bloody eye gouging – not to mention desecration of the Bible and forced heroin use – and you have yourself quite the reinterpretation of the Greek myth.

It’s rare that I see a play whose audacity leaves me speechless. Not every re-imagining of familiar myth is successful, but playwright Luis Alfaro grounds his firmly in machismo and folklore, and it works. Backed by the stark prison of a set by Misha Kachman, all clanging iron and cutting wire, and a haunting musical mix by composer Ryan Rumery weaving the power of industrial with wistful ballads, Oedipus el Rey dares you to be shocked. The worldly audience at Woolly Mammoth, long used to boundary breaking, laughed a bit nervously at press night as the opening scenes unfolded with the Coro (the traditional Chorus) speaking rhythmically in Chicano accents and asking repeatedly “quien es este hombre?” while Oedipus (Andres Munar) holds plank for what seems like forever. Imagine the reaction when he and Jocasta (an absolutely riveting Romi Diaz) strip down to their tattoos and make out. And as for that eye gouging… when the eyes hit the floor, my jaw did too.

Those last two are probably the elements you will hear about the most, because they are shocking, even in our blase times. The ancients described these moments in words, but they were never shown onstage. But don’t let that deviation from the classical norm overshadow what is essentially a deeply poetic, moving play. It contrasts the fear of the futility of escaping your fate with the desire to be more than what you are seen to be, by your peers, by your parents, by yourself. The universal human desire to soar above the dirty hard world we live in, to be “un rey.”

I’d be remiss to my former drama professors, who drummed the classical origins of theater into me by repeated readings of Aristotle’s Poetics, if I didn’t point out that you shouldn’t expect Oedipus el Rey to be a strict retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (as if the above references to nudity and gangs didn’t already clue you in). In Sophocles, we meet Oedipus when he is already king – the deeds are done, the Sphinx conquered, he’s sitting pretty in Thebes with Jocasta as his queen and the gods are ready to strike him down. Alfaro introduces his Oedipus as a callow young man on the verge of getting out of prison, heading back to the barrio with the ambition of becoming top dog but not yet showing any signs he’s up to the task other than a burning desire to make something happen.

Jumping back in time to introduce his parents, the passionately dysfunctional Laius and Jocasta (shooting your wife up with heroin after she gives birth to the son you’re going to have killed? that’s hardcore), Alfaro roots all the characters in the culture of his own youth in downtown LA, and mirrors the ancient gods with the belief in brujeria. It works, especially by making seer Tiresias (Gerard Ender, with sad gravitas) believable in the modern setting, and by updating Jocasta’s firey brother Creon (Jose Joaquin Perez) to an ambitious gangster.

As Oedipus, Andres Munar magnetically strut-shuffles his way about stage (his name means lame foot, as his father scarred his feet when he was born, a piece of the myth that fits well in the brutal world depicted). He’s a lost boy with a dangerous chip on his shoulder, and like most macho men, in desperate need of a mother. When he meets her, the absolutely riveting Romi Diaz as Jocasta, it’s hardly a cliche to say the stage energy crackles. Jocasta’s been running the barrio after her husband’s death, the empowerment of the widow common in Latin cultures.ย Alfaro takes his time unraveling the seduction between them, highlighting all sorts of other myths – the most ancient being that the queen makes the king, not the other way around – and somehow makes the incest that results seem actually plausible, almost naturally tender. It’s the fact that these two damaged people are so right for each other that makes its taboo all the more incendiary. So that when Oedipus finally calls Jocasta mother and begs her to gouge out his eyes, it’s heartrending. In Sophocles, Jocasta hangs herself and her son blinds himself with her dress pins. Here, the one who gave you sight takes it away.

However, by highlighting the lost boy quality of his Oedipus, Alfaro doesn’t quite succeed in making him a king. That leads to a rather truncated feel to the end, for those of us used to the full myth. The play clocks in at a brisk 90 minutes, after all, and I wished it were longer to explore the journey from youth to man more fully. It also fails when trying to incorporate the Sphinx, a muddled section where the solving of the riddle is secondary to Oedipus’ shredding pages of the Bible. It wasn’t brute force that made the gods fear and then curse man, it was man’s wily ability to outwit them. But that’s lost here in the only moment where Alfaro’s crafted interplay between Catholicism, Chicano folklore and Greek gods just doesn’t pan out.

There’s still plenty to digest despite that quibble. I’ve no doubt this is a play that will be studied in depth for many years. The weaving of Spanish and English words, for example, the contrasting of fate with incarceration – those elements alone make me want to see it again. For a short play it’s very dense. Director Michael John Garcรฉs does an excellent job of conducting the actors’ rhythm – the pace rises and falls, vocality punches strongly and then wavers melodically, creating a musical feel throughout the piece that’s hypnotic. The acting is rich, as well, with special mention to the members of the Coro (Mando Alvarado and Jaime Robert Carrillo) whose constant shapeshifting and choral precision is the backbone of the action.

Alfaro is quoted in the playbill interview saying, “The thing I love most about the Greeks is how they pose a question and leave the audience to answer it.” My happiest times writing about theater are when I’m filled with questions days after seeing a performance, when it still haunts me and makes me curious to discover more. So go see Oedipus el Rey and get a new perspective on a classic that still resonates today, asking the question – who is this man who would be king? And can we ever truly know who we are and whether fate rules our destiny?

Oedipus el Rey at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through March 6, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archives/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.

As one of the founding editors of We Love DC, Jenn’s passions are theater and cocktails. After two decades in the city, she’s loved every quirky, mundane, elegant, rude minute of her DC life. A proud advocate for DC’s talented drinks scene, she’s judged the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s ARTINI contest, the DC Rickey Month contest, the Jefferson Hotel’s Quill Cocktail competition, and is a founding member of LUPEC DC. A graduate of Catholic University’s drama program, she toured the country as a member of National Players, and has been both an actor and a costume designer before jumping the aisle to theater criticism. Writing for We Love DC restored her happiness after a life-threatening illness, and she’s grateful to you, dear readers. Send your suggestions to jenn (at) welovedc (dot) com and follow her on Twitter.

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