Oedipus el Rey at Victory Gardens Theater | Theater review
Luis Alfaro’s resetting of Sophocles shifts the action to modern-day gangland with remarkable success.
Powerful stories repeat themselves. That’s the implicit and explicit suggestion of Luis Alfaro’s Chicano recasting of Sophocles, which opens in a prison setting, where a young male inmate expresses a desire to tell his own story, a new story. As his fellow prisoners take on characters, the scene shifts to South Central L.A., where gang boss Laius is told by a seer that his unborn son will kill him. Laius’s right-hand man Tiresias, charged with killing the newborn Oedipus, spares him. But our fated stories, Oedipus will learn, are hard to escape.
Alfaro’s charged resetting of the Greek myth is remarkably successful, aided by a fluid ensemble and Chay Yew’s agile direction. Young Oedipus (Adam Poss), we discover, fell quickly into petty crime; Tiresias (Eddie Torres), feeling responsibility for the boy, robs a few 7-Elevens just so he can get tossed in prison to look after him. When the time comes for Oedipus’s release, he ignores his surrogate father’s warnings and returns to Los Angeles, where gang rivalries and territories make fitting stand-ins for ancient city-states. Sure enough, he soon offs Laius in a street fight and unknowingly takes his father’s place in his mother Jocasta’s bed.
The latter event unfolds in a long, achingly sensual scene between Charin Alvarez, whose Jocasta is both radiant and haunted, and Poss, in a magnetic, surely career-making turn as Oedipus. While the playwright suggests Oedipus’s hubristic actions elsewhere can be chalked up to a combination of factors—arrogance, ambition, an indifferent prison system, God—here his intentions seem pure. The two actors, nude and tightly intertwined on a slowly revolving turntable, enact an entire tender romance that cooks up a complicated mix of emotions as we watch. Where the rest of the play unfolds with a driving rhythm of inevitability, Yew gives this searingly intimate moment plenty of room to breathe—making their climactic moment of horrified discovery all the more agonizing. Alfaro’s impressive act of translation and Yew’s thrilling, immersive staging prove that old stories are worth new tellings.