It is incredible that the 2,400-year-old Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex is still familiar to us. Written by Sophocles and first performed around 429 B.C., the tale of a man who kills his father and marries his mother still echoes in our culture today. Each generation grapples with the play's themes of pride and fate, filtering them through their own contemporary experiences.
Such is the case with the current production from Borderlands Theater. Renowned Chicano writer Luis Alfaro has transported the tale from ancient Greece to contemporary California, with city-states, kings and oracles transformed into barrios, drug lords and spiritualists.
Premiering in San Francisco in 2010, his Oedipus el Rey has great moments of insight and emotional rawness, and the play is best when the ancient bumps up against the contemporary, prompting the viewer to look at both sides with new understanding. Contemporary relevance and the compelling performances in the Borderlands production help compensate for the work's underlying weaknesses.
Alfaro says he was inspired in part by the extraordinarily high recidivism rate in California's prisons. The play begins in a jail, with a chorus of orange-jumpsuit-wearing convicts. (The contemporary set is designed by John Longhofer; the modern-day costumes are by Kathy Hurst.) The Greek play explored what happens when man fights against the will of the gods. Alfaro's jailbirds consider whether it's fate or choice that sends an ex-con back to his cell.
Speaking in interwoven, chanted phrases, the four-man chorus (Bardo Padilla, Jason Chavez, Julian Martinez and Guillermo Francisco Raphael Jones) evokes Sophocles' poetry while sounding contemporary and colloquial. Director Eva Zorrilla Tessler seems to have taken great pleasure in creating the verbal choreography of these passages.
After the choral opening, Alfaro depicts background events that are only talked about in the ancient play. A seer tells King Laius (Jones) that he will be killed by his own son. To avoid this fate, as soon as his wife, Jocasta (Alida Holguin Gunn), has given birth, Laius gives the child to Tiresias, a composite character that merges the servant and blind prophet in Sophocles' play. Tiresias (Robert Ybanez) disobeys the king's orders to kill the child, and instead raises Oedipus with no knowledge of his past.
Oedipus (Bryant Enriquez) spends much of his youth incarcerated, but he believes it is his destiny to become a king, or even a god. As fate would have it, on his first day out of prison, he crosses paths with Laius, the man he doesn't know is his father. After a roadside argument, Oedipus beats Laius to death. He seeks shelter with Creon (Martinez), an old friend, and feels an instant chemistry with Creon's sister—the newly widowed Jocasta.
It would be easy to say here that tragedy ensues, but this play provides strong evidence that sorrow and pain are not synonymous with tragedy. The dark events that follow remain strangely unaffecting.
In school, we're taught that Greek tragedy is all about hubris—man making himself equal to the gods. But what makes the original Oedipus Rex so gripping is that Oedipus is destroyed, in part, by his commitment to justice. His kingdom is cursed with a plague because Laius' murder remains unsolved, and Oedipus doggedly pursues the truth, even when he suspects where it will lead.
In Oedipus el Rey, Alfaro depicts the entire story onstage, unspooling Sophocles' plot detective-story-style. This allows him to explore some wonderfully human moments—Jocasta's longing for a baby, Laius' tenderness with his child before ordering his death—but robs Oedipus and Jocasta of the chance to slowly discover their doom. Instead, the bad news of their family bond is just delivered to them, and the two zoom from zero to extreme horror in a matter of seconds.
The character of Oedipus is, surprisingly, the least-effective element of Alfaro's transposition. He seems two-dimensional and repeatedly declares his desire to defy the gods, but he never indicates what this means to him. His final act of murder is completely inexplicable.
If Alfaro wanted to explore recidivism, he missed his opportunity. An Oedipus who seeks to defy the gods by living free, but who is inexorably dragged back to darkness, is a tragic hero. An Oedipus who acts without thought, who kills and extorts without compunction, seems to earn the pain that befalls him.
Enriquez is an interesting choice for the role of Oedipus. His height gives him a towering presence appropriate for an aspiring king, but his muffled diction undercuts his power. He is a very external actor, not revealing much of his inner workings. This suits the character's impulsive nature, but it also inhibits him from winning the audience's sympathy.
Gunn, on the other hand, is a powerhouse as Jocasta. She gives a performance of fearless emotional (and sometimes literal) nakedness.
Early on, pregnant with Oedipus, she longs for tenderness from her husband, but she's already learning to protect herself beneath a veneer of street-smart toughness. Many years later, she is a changed woman—hope and youth have been beaten out of her, leaving silent rage beneath a hardened exterior.
The scene in which Jocasta and the adult Oedipus first meet is the most perfectly written and performed in the entire play. Together, the actors and writer explore sides of these characters overlooked by Sophocles—how Jocasta could give herself to another man so soon after her husband's death, and why Oedipus didn't learn more about Laius' death.
The supporting cast is uniformly strong. Ybanez has an "old soul" that is perfect for the blind prophet Tiresias. Jones' Laius is a man who wields anger as a mark of power. Martinez, as Creon, displays perfect comic delivery while exposing the helpless frustration that drives him.
The fine performances are enhanced by Jim Klingenfus' excellent sound design, which ranges from breathy atmospherics to doo-wop karaoke.
All together, the cast and creative team bring passion to this play. While it may not be a new classic, Oedipus el Rey tells one of literature's great stories in a voice that speaks to our modern world.