Phillipe Bowgen as Oedipus and David Lugo as Laius in the Dallas Theater Center production of Oedipus el Rey
Oedipus el Rey puts Sophocles’ great tragedy in a California prison yard. It’s playwright Luis Alfaro’s Latino gangland adaptation of Oedipus Rex, and it’s getting its area premiere from the Dallas Theater Center. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says this Oedipus is fierce and tender, new and old.
- Front Row review
- Dallas Morning News review
- TheaterJones review
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Think of OZ, the landmark HBO prison drama from a dozen years ago: Six Latino inmates stand around in t-shirts, pumping iron, singing songs, swapping insults, desperate to kill the boredom. A story, someone tell a story – “something about us,’ one says. ‘How we got here,’ another replies. Then the back-and-forth turns to the new kid and what’s his story. “He’s got a story.” “Is it about what happened to him?” “Or what he made happen?” “I always get confused.” “Don’t confuse it!” “Just tell it!”
That’s how Luis Alfaro’s high-testosterone, high-tattoo-content adaptation of Oedipus begins — with a chorus chanting and shouting and musing. For modern versions of Greek tragedies, the chorus is one of the clunkier, more archaic things to handle. Contemporary audiences often find the chorus — this group of concerned citizens commenting on the story — just slow death to any dramatic action. So modern adapters often shrink the chorus, absorb it or sideline it completely. But Alfaro actually has a chorus of prison convicts pretty much take over Oedipus el Rey. Only six men and one woman play all the roles here, keeping this 90-minute play tight and muscular. We’re thrust into a dark, brutal world of kingpins, violence, old folk traditions and family obligations – a world, in fact, much like ancient Athens.
A sign of how potent this production is: Moriarty likes using plays as sociopolitical platforms. His King Lear, for instance, was a tragedy about Alzheimer’s. His recent Christmas Carol concluded by indicting child labor. The problem isn’t with Moriarty’s well-meaning views; it’s that he’s stunted complex, troubling dramas. He’s made them into message delivery systems.
Sabina Zuniga Varela as Jocasta marrying Oedipus (Phillipe Bowgen).
Playwright Alfaro clearly wants to use Oedipus in precisely this way. He offers a lesson about our criminal justice system condemning young Latinos to gang life by taking away their fathers, their youth. The Theater Center has certainly amplified that into a teachable moment: The lobby displays prison stats. But Alfaro’s drama actually succeeds where most such high-minded adaptations don’t. Any informative links between Athens and South Central LA simply fall away under the emotional power of the way he re-tells this story. We’re hammered with how visceral and immediate Sophocles’ great tragedy remains – on the level of family and blood, sex and guilt.
Not everything Alfaro tries works to the best. Characters occasionally refer to themselves as people in a story, a story that’s already been told (riffing off those opening lines of convicts swapping tales). But the conceit only makes the play feel self-conscious, taking audience members out of a chillingly direct experience.
For this to work, Alfaro has had to seriously streamline Oedipus. He’s removed the city-wide plague, for instance, that in Sophocles’ version is the trigger that forces Oedipus to uncover his own background. But Alfaro does the condensing in a way that doesn’t strip out context and background. He flips the narrative: We don’t start with the present and work backward through revelations, like a detective story — because, let’s face it, we already know the revelations. Instead, we work on the back story, with Alfaro addressing various scenes and issues in ways Sophocles never does: How did Oedipus and Jocasta meet and fall in love? How could Laius and Oedipus ever meet and fight — when they knew, one day, Laius would die at the hands of his son?
The answers often have to do with the disruptions caused by our prison system — as heavy as fate. There’s also the fierce antagonisms and family loyalties enforced by Mexican gangs and cartels — as forceful as destiny. And then there’s just old-fashioned machismo. In this world, ethnic identity and masculinity are threatened and embattled but only roar and curse the louder. The young Oedipus is released from juvenile detention and heads for LA, even though the blind man he thinks is his father, Tiresias, told him not to. On the way, Oedipus gets into a little road-rage exchange with a stranger, doing the quien es mas macho? bit. Oedipus insults the stranger by calling him ‘old man’ and ordering him to move his car. The stranger yells the road is MINE, calls Oedipus a little boy fresh out of lock-up. We know how this ends, but, as staged here with these actors, it’s still gripping.
The old man, of course, is Laius, a king of the streets in LA, the father Oedipus never knew. He’s played like an angry, blustery rock by David Lugo, a local actor who’s been woefully underused by North Texas theaters.
Speaking of the acting, that brings up something else Moriarty often does. He likes environmental stagings, the immersive experience with lots of people running in and around the audience, making us, supposedly, part of the action. The weakness of this kind of staging is that it fragments the focus; it’s often hard for any one actor to grab our attention when our heads are swiveling. Oedipus el Rey is presented upstairs in the smaller Studio Theatre at the Wyly, and Moriarty encloses us in a tiny, bare-bones arena in the prison yard (designed by Matthew McKinney). The playing space is so tight, the front-row theatergoers are likely to get splashed with fake blood. (The arena, by the way, clearly echoes the Coliseum or classic Greek theater design — complete with vomitoria.)
But because that playing space is so small, and because Alfaro’s scenes often have just two characters tearing into each other, there’s no loss of focus, no escape. These actors have to grab our attention. And they do. In addition to Lugo, there’s Phillipe Bowgen as Oedipus, an intense tangle of youthful yearnings and angers. In contrast, Garza’s Tiresias is a bruised, impressive, aged presence — the sage who tries to impart something about family and life and self to Oedipus: “The only thing that needs healing is the soul.”
Most of all, there’s Sabina Zuniga Varela, as Jocasta. A battered wife, she had the infant Oedipus yanked from her by Laius. In this defiantly macho world, she’s become tougher than anyone. But when she and Oedipus meet and first test each other, they quickly find how needy and wounded the other actually is. She questions his blunt assertions of not needing anyone or anything, not even God. You’ll find, she warns, that you’ll need his comfort some day.
The two finally open up to each other in the long, erotic nude scene at the heart of this play — a beautiful and daringly simple duet in Moriarty’s staging. But the two are opening up, of course, to the worst possible person. That’s how Alfaro makes us feel the crushing weight of the tragedy, condensing it in a single moment of bared flesh and tender desperation.
In all of this, Varela is so compelling, so strong, so vulnerable, she practically makes it The Tragedy of Jocasta. She certainly helps make it one of the boldest shows Moriarty has ever directed.
Rehearsal scene from the Dallas Theater Center’s Oedipus el Rey with Phillipe Bowgen as Oedipus, Sabina Zuniga Varela as Jocasta and Daniel Duque-Estrada as Creon, Jocasta’s brother.