- Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro
Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey is not a new play. Written in 2007, it received its New York City premiere in fall 2017 at the Public Theater in collaboration with the Sol Project. The production punctuated a three-year relationship that began in 2014 with a series of roundtables and conversations on how to bring more inclusive representations, specifically Latinx artists and art, to a larger public. This Oedipus maintained all the prophecy, hubris, and incest of its source material. However, Alfaro and director Chay Yew took fate and agency head-on within the context of gangs, family, and loyalty in Los Angeles. The Public’s artistic director Oskar Eustis and Yew offered Alfaro’s take on the literal bedrock of Western theatre as a way to end the mythic trajectory of the Oedipus story in our contemporary society.
Oedipus El Rey was staged in the smaller, more intimate Shiva Theater at the Public. Shallow and wide, the space forced the visual world into a flat plane, presenting the play against iconographic imagery. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez’s stylized graffiti mural, which featured a Madonna wrapped in billowing blue folds at center, spanned the entire upstage wall. A large blue figure with outstretched hand holding a small female bride resembling a wedding-cake topper flanked her right side. To her left was another figure, with a male groom in her hand matching the former’s in scale. Cherubic figures fell/flew in the interstitial spaces. The stage area looked paved, at once evoking the sidewalks and streets of LA’s Pico Union district and a prison yard. Multiple sections of prison gates slid on and off on tracks, further emphasizing the two-dimensional quality of the space and story. Hernandez did not offer the generic palace steps of Western antiquity, but a brightly colored world that contrasted the religious ecstasy of the Virgin Mary and Mesoamerican iconography with the confined world of the prison industry. [End Page 561]
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It was against this brightly colored imagery that the play began. Five men dressed in prison orange uniforms entered the space. Yew immediately altered the flatness of the theatre as actors came into the house and climbed ladder rungs embedded in structural columns and the upstage wall. This was the Coro, a small ensemble of six actors from whom Laius, Tiresias, Creon, and Oedipus would emerge. They began a call and response between the house and stage, asking what stories were going to be told. The response accumulated from a single voice answering to the entire Coro responding in unison. Alfaro’s simple use of choral voices at the opening of the production introduced a successful and engaging device that was maintained throughout the Coro’s odes in the play. The vocal rhythm was precise, clipped, and sometimes playful, sometimes threatening, but it always pushed the pacing of the play, demanding that the audience actively listen to keep up. The stories to be told in the prison yard were not immediately for us, the outsiders, but for inmates.
The Coro led us to the familiar story of pride, prophecy, and ruin. Characters were announced. Oedipus (Juan Castano)—young, shirtless, and fit—did pushups and sit ups in the yard. As the Coro told the story, actor Julio Monge put on a pair of sun glasses and revealed a collapsible support cane to become Tiresias; Juan Francisco Villa put on a blinged-out chain with a crown to become Laius; and, Joel Perez pulled out a large styrofoam cup, sipped his horchata to become a somewhat hapless Creon. Jocasta was introduced in a similar way, but was soon replaced onstage by Sandra Delgado in a simple black wrap dress. Yew’s presentational staging of the opening kept the characters at a sympathetic remove, further...