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.”