Leandro Cano, Spencer Smith, Lakin Valdez in Oedipus El Rey at San Diego REP
A young man and an older woman, both naked, make tender love in silk sheets amid a roseate aura. They haven’t known each other long, but found common goals and dreams. A blazing sense they are meant for each other, like filling each other’s empty spaces, incites their passion.
Her name is Jocasta. His is Oedipus. Though neither knows, she is his mother.
They had no choice. The Gods decided their fate long before (people are “already history when they just start living”). But, Luis Alfaro asks in his contemporary version of Sophocles’ great tragedy, Oedipus the King, are people fated from birth?
Is it possible, a character asks, to break the old cycle and create a new story? Oedipus El Rey also asks: are countless young men from the barrio destined to spend their lives in prison? Is that their only possible “story”?
Young Oedipus Gomez doesn’t think so. Imprisoned for stealing from Costco, taught by his “father,” the blind Tiresias, who had himself incarcerated to be with his son, Oedipus has faith only in himself. “God’s ego’s too big,” he says committing the ultimate act of hubris. “I can do better than Him.”
Lakin Valdez, Mónica Sánchez in Oedipus El Rey at San Diego REP
In a variation of Man of La Mancha, Gomez and his fellow prisoners re-enact the story of Oedipus in contemporary terms. “El Rey” Laius is a powerful, South Central drug king losing turf to the “Salvadorians.” Fresh out of prison, Oedipus kills him in a fit of road rage. Not knowing that Laius is his real father, Oedipus sets off the dominos of destiny.
Sophocles’ version begins in the eleventh hour. Oedipus stands center-stage and one messenger after another brings the worst news imaginable, until the next one arrives.
Alfaro’s modern adaptation unfolds like a prologue to the original: Oedipus is born unwanted by his father; Laius scars the infant’s feet and orders him killed (Oedipus means “swollen feet”); Oedipus slays his father; he meets Jocasta and falls in love; he becomes a power-chomping, Scarface-like el mero, “the one”; then learns the truth.
Or is it? Jocasta’s brother, Creon, says the Old School had a different way to murder someone: kill the name. Start with gossip, turn it into rumor, repeat until it becomes the Official Story. In effect, make happenstance look like fate.
For the San Diego Rep, Yoon Bae’s terrific set combines eras 2500 years apart. A large marble circle could be a rest area at a mall or prison-yard, and/or an Athenian mini-amphitheater. Lonnie Alcaraz’s shafts of light could be sunbeams or iron bars. Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes include gangsta fare — chinos, top-buttoned plaid shirts — and suggestions of ancient Greece.
The production has the formal elegance of ritual. The staging by Sam Woodhouse, with pulsing chants and drums, and Alfaro’s sonorous language, is both locked-in stately and — as when three vatos play the Sphinx with garish masks and Vegas-lit eyes — surprisingly funny.
Lakin Valdez is an extraordinary Oedipus. His slow rise and Icarus-like fall are unforgettable. As is Monica Sanchez’s Jocasta. Sophocles concentrated on Oedipus. Alfaro gives Jocasta an amazing arc: a miserable human being sparked with joy and extinguished by the unthinkable.
Jorge Rodriguez makes el mero wannabe Creon a serio-comical gem, as brutal as he is confused. Leandro Cano’s booming Laius and Matt Orduna’s Tiresias bookend the stage like good and evil angels. Dave Rivas and Spencer Smith provide useful support.
These days, “classic” tragedies often lack the full tug. There’s a distance in the translation: we watch with our minds as much as our hearts. The best part of the San Diego Rep’s production: it feels like a genuine tragedy. Each step of the way, one is tempted to shout “No!” or “Don’t go there!” to resist, out loud, the unfolding fatality.
But is it? What if Creon was right? Are we watching yet another re-telling of the Official Story? The one that asserts there is no way out?