Putting a Latin accent on Greek tragedy, playwright Luis Alfaro turns Sophocles’s classic drama “Oedipus Rex” into “Oedipus el Rey,” now at Victory Gardens Theater. The switch from ancient Thebes to contemporary South Central Los Angeles is likely intended to make the play’s themes more accessible and relevant to modern audiences. Ironically, the original “Oedipus Rex” may be the one play that will linger in the collective unconscious forever, without real need for updating.
Still, it never hurts to retell it, and a capable cast under the direction of Chay Yew keeps the audience engaged for 95 minutes without intermission. Some theatergoers may avert their eyes when Oedipus’s orbs are gouged out, but it’s impossible not to look when fully nude Charin Alverez and Adam Poss, both giving powerful performances, embrace as lovers Jocasta and Oedipus, not realizing they are mother and son but sensing an undeniable connection. Revolving slowly on a turntable the diameter of their bodies, the pair seems to be in their own private orbit.
Several of the playwright’s conceits work well, especially the backdrop of a prison (set design by Kevin Depinet) that frames the action, metaphorically locking the characters into their fates, with no escape possible. Transforming Greek royals into Latin drug lords makes dramatic sense, as does the scene where Oedipus unknowingly slays his father: the original struggle over whose chariot has the right-of-way becomes a case of road rage, pure and simple. A Greek chorus of thugs — Arturo Soria (as Creon), Jesse David Perez and Steve Casillas — is chillingly effective, especially when conjoined as the riddle-telling Sphinx. Madrid St. Angelo plays a menacing Laius.
But some of the playwright’s choices weaken Sophocles’s muscle. In the original, Oedipus is given information but makes false assumptions — i.e., that the best way to avoid patricide and incest is simply to put space between himself and his parents, which might have worked had he not been mistaken about their identities. In Alfaro’s version Oedipus receives little information. When he is about to be released from jail — on his 17th birthday this Chicano Oedipus robbed a Costco — the man he knows as his father, Tiresius (not the blind prophet of the Greek drama), played by Eddie Torres, tells Oedipus he should go to Las Vegas rather than to LA, but Tiresius gives no solid reason for his advice. Thus Oedipus’s decision has little to do with considering the existential question of whether fate can be avoided. He is not even free to make false assumptions.
Alfaro, a MacArthur “Genius” grantee, rewrote his play specifically for the Chicago production, but it’s hard to see where those changes are, because the play seems firmly rooted in LA. A statement in the program suggests that theatergoers consider “Oedipus el Rey” in terms of Chicago’s recent upsurge in gang violence. It’s a provocative premise but perhaps a misleading one. “Oedipus Rex” forces us to think about what fate means and whether it’s possible to escape it. “Oedipus el Rey” asks at the end, “Can we break the cycle and tell new stories?” The problem is, it is telling the same old story.
Oedipus el Rey
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago
Through July 29
Tickets: $20–$50 ($15 student tickets); 773-871-3000; victorygardens.org
Parking note: through November 1, 5 hours parking free at the former Children’s Memorial Hospital garage at 2316 N. Lincoln Ave.
Photos: Michael Brosilow