Oedipus El Rey Review
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OEDIPUS EL REY — A Modern Classic
Review by Judith M. Wilson
Photos: Jennifer Reiley
Esteban Carmona as Oedipus and Lorraine Velez as Jocasta
Oedipus El Rey is legendary in Magic Theatre lore, and for good reason. It’s an inventive retelling of Sophocle’s classic, Oedipus Rex, set it in a rough, Latino area of modern-day Los Angeles, complete with elements of Greek tragedy. Playwright Luis Alfaro’s play had its premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason 10 years ago, with direction by the Magic’s artistic director Loretto Greco, and now it’s back for a legacy revival, with Greco again at the helm.
In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the protagonist, Oedipus, leave his home to escape a prophecy that foresees his killing his father, Laius, and marrying his mother Jocasta. Despite his best efforts to avoid fate, the prophecy comes to pass, resulting in tragic consequences when the truth comes to light. Playwright Alfaro changes the setting, but the story is much the same with all the key plot points intact, although in a different time and culture.
The action starts in a prison in California’s Kern County, where a young many named Oedipus is imprisoned and about to be released. On his return to Los Angeles, he becomes involved in a road-rage incident, and in anger, he kills the other driver, who turns out to be his father Laius. On arrival in Los Angeles, he looks up a friend, meets the man’s sister, falls in love and marries her, unaware that she is his mother. With Greco’s astute direction and a strong cast, the story is fresh and contemporary, and Alfaro’s script is riveting, with the story’s themes, such as fate, free will and blindness, true to its ancient roots.
Esteban Carmona plays Oedipus as a passionate yet ruthless and angry young man, with survival instincts and prison culture innate to his being, making his actions plausible. Lorraine Velez (left) is Jocasta, his love interest, and she is Carmona’s equal, turning in a performance as a strong, determined woman, who is a survivor in a world where life often has little value. They have a nude sex scene that’s effective without becoming too explicit. Gendell HIng-Hernandez is Laius, who is defined by his attempt to challenge the gods and avoid his preordained fate, Sean San José (below with Esteban Carmona) plays Tiresias, the blind man who raised Oedipus but sees danger ahead and tries his best to protect Oedipus from his own worst instincts. Armando Rodriguez portrays Creon while Juan Amador is El Sobador, filling the role of the Oracle to see into the future and make fateful predictions. Amador, Hing-Hernandez, Rodriguez and San José fill the essential role of the chorus, Coro, in providing the commentary that is an integral part of classic Greek drama.
The set design by Hana Kim is simple and dark, and it makes the transition well from prison to road to bedroom, with lighting to put the spotlight on the action. Greco’s direction makes good creative use of the set, as well. Members of the chorus back and forth on the stage to simulate highway traffic, for example. Jacquelyn Scott gets credit for tattoo art design and execution, which is one of the ways the production pays attention to small but important details throughout the play.
One of the play’s strong points is the language, which is certainly rough, as one would expect in a culture where prison and gangs are the norm, but it also contains small but unexpected gems. After El Sobador delivers the prophecy to Laius, for instance, he asks for payment—in cash only. It also contains references to Christianity, setting it firmly in Hispanic culture. To add authenticity, some of the dialog is in Spanish, but it’s in context and won’t spoil the enjoyment for non-Spanish speakers. The meaning is clear, and the program also includes a glossary of the play’s Spanish phrases, as well as photos of the play’s real-life locations.
Oedipus El Rey is a welcome revival, and it’s a clear example of why the Magic Theatre enjoys a reputation for groundbreaking drama.
Oedipus El Rey plays through Sunday, June 23. For more information, go to www.magictheatre.org or call 415-441-8822.