It’s unlikely you’ll be shocked that the title character in Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey kills his father and marries his mother — after all, if you’re familiar with one Greek tragedy, it’s probably Oedipus Rex. Still, there are a number of things about Alfaro’s modern adaptation, set in gang-controlled South Central Los Angeles, that might leave you puzzled. Things like: Why is that nude scene so long? Why is the infamous eye-gouging, usually left to audiences’ imaginations, happening onstage? And what is Alfaro after, exactly, in melding contemporary California with ancient Thebes?
Alfaro’s drama, now at the Public in its New York premiere (directed by Chay Yew), reshapes Sophocles’ tale of fate overcoming free will to address the cycles of incarceration and violence plaguing Latinx communities in Los Angeles. Oedipus (Juan Castano) is a brash young nobody recently released from prison, who, after being rebuffed by legal employers, hooks up with his old friend, gangland operative Creon (Joel Perez). He soon falls madly in love with Creon’s sister, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), the widow of the local turf boss, Laius (Juan Francisco Villa), who was killed by a violent stranger one night. (That violent stranger? Oedipus, of course.)
The emphasis, in this updated classic, is twofold. Alfaro explores the romance between Jocasta and Oedipus in more-than-typical depth, orchestrating a long, intimate love scene performed mostly in the nude. At the same time, the forces of fate are reimagined as a punitive legal system that locks incarcerated individuals into cycles of prison time, poverty, illegal activity, and more prison time. The newly-paroled Oedipus tries desperately to secure even minimum-wage janitorial work, but his record proves an unconquerable barrier to employment. He enters the world of car-stripping and drug-smuggling only reluctantly, though he excels at the tasks once he does.
These storytelling elements fit together uneasily. It’s fascinating to imagine the Oedipus-Jocasta relationship as a genuine connection rather than a willful deity’s bad joke, but the lengthy love scene emphasizes the performers’ nudity at the expense of their thoughts and emotions. (It also encounters standard onstage-sex-scene problems: You can only take them so far in a realistic mode.) And the thought-provoking analogy between destiny and a system of oppression calls for more complexity. Comparing the prison industry to the capricious gods sort of makes sense — both prophecy and the system effectively seal Oedipus’s fate — but it also downplays society’s responsibility for incarceration and poverty.
These qualms aside, it’s worth noting that Oedipus El Rey is produced in collaboration with Jacob Padrón’s excellent Sol Project, dedicated to creating space for Latinx playwrights on the American stage. It’s a vital and necessary endeavor, and deserves all the stage time and resources it can get. Ditto Alfaro’s vision for contemporary L.A., a spiritual and cultural world that cries out for more detail. There are prophetic (and adorable) glow-in-the-dark owls, and the young king confronts the mysterious “Sphinx” in a dark botánica. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, a brick wall adorned with a Virgin Mary mural, implies a role for Catholic spirituality in this tale, one we don’t learn enough about. Perhaps, in the final count, Alfaro ceded just a little too much precious turf to Sophocles.