Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey takes the Greek tragedian Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex) and reimagines it as a modern-day story in an L.A. barrio. Oedipus El Rey, which began life at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco five years ago, is now on stage at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in an incendiary production directed by the Rep’s Sam Woodhouse. In terms of tone and pacing, it’s uneven, but the events of Oedipus El Rey, as in Sophocles’ classic work, are devastating.
In both plays, a young king (at the Rep he’s portrayed by Lakin Valdez, seen last year in the memorable, site-specific collaboration with La Jolla Playhouse, El Henry), is doomed to murder his father, then marry his mother. As even most high school scholars know, the impulsive Oedipus ends up literally blinded by the unspeakable truth. This is a tale that’s nearly 2,500 years old. Neither time nor the critical dissections of academics or Sigmund Freud has made it any less disturbing. The transfer of Oedipus’ saga from ancient Greece to South Central L.A. does not dilute the foundation of the tragedy, though the intended infusion of street-gang energy is not consistent. Oedipus El Rey’s prison scenes at the beginning of the play set a propulsive mood – fierce, unpredictable and often funny -- that re-emerges whenever the inmate characters return to the stage. But once Oedipus meets Jocasta (Monica Sanchez) and almost immediately beds her, melodrama washes over much of the high spirit. Theatergoers may not notice, however: The nudity and lovemaking are frank and sensual, as they should be. The audience knows it is incest even if the characters do not, and the significance of that can not be minimized or PG-13’d.
Valdez is macho and properly agonized as Oedipus, while Sanchez oozes a haunted sexuality as Jocasta. In the lesser but critical role of the prophet Tiresias, Matt Orduna stands out even when he’s only walking silently across the stage with his blind man’s cane.
At times a hybrid of histrionics and barrio machismo, Oedipus El Rey is possibly overambitious. But it’s a well-intentioned attempt to make relevant and add some mean-streets blood and thunder to a story written in, wow, 430, B.C.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.