Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"No man is feliz till he's six feet under": Oedipus El Rey

Blind, a modern-day adaptation of Oedipus Rex by Craig Wright, just opened in New York to bad reviews. But, perversely, I almost wish that I could see it for myself... because I recently saw another new adaptation of the Oedipus legend--Oedipus El Rey, by Luis Alfaro--and it was really amazing. So I'd be curious to see this other play to learn why Wright gets it wrong (ha!) and Alfaro gets it right.

It sounds like Wright's play, like Sophocles' original, focuses on the ninety minutes it takes King Oedipus to discover that he has killed his father and married his mother--a single scene, played out in real-time. But Alfaro's play dramatizes the backstory: he shows the young Jocasta giving birth to Oedipus, and how exactly Oedipus killed Laius and fell in love with Jocasta. It is vivid, it is fluid, and it covers a broad emotional palette. In ninety minutes, there's a tender love scene accompanied by a haunting a capella rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," a rousing party celebrating Oedipus and Jocasta's wedding, a dream sequence where Oedipus converses with prophetic owls, and a truly shocking and gruesome ending. There were only six actors--Oedipus, Jocasta, and a four-man chorus who take on other roles as needed--and minimal scenery, enabling the play to cover so much ground so swiftly.

Sophocles' play is a detective story with a cathartic punch at the end, but the detective-story parts of the plot are glossed over in Alfaro's version. It's much more of a human drama, all the way through. He streamlines the original myth: Oedipus learns the truth shortly after marrying Jocasta, rather than after they have four children together. Also, in his version, Oedipus's foster-father is Tirésias, the blind prophet, not some random king of a neighboring city--which is such an amazing way to reinforce the theme of blindness that runs through the play, and makes Oedipus' decision to gouge his eyes out that much more resonant.

The Los Angeles Chicano setting of Alfaro's adaptation also lends it interest--I particularly liked the Chorus's translation of Sophocles into a contemporary Hispanic idiom, especially the final moral: "No man is feliz 'til he's six feet under." But I came out of Oedipus El Rey thinking less about how it was a "Hispanic play," and more about how it rewrote a familiar myth in a compelling and moving way, with a great storytelling instinct.

Oh, one more thing: I loved how Alfaro made the Greek concept of "hubris" intelligible to contemporary audiences by writing Oedipus as a very young, very cocky man. So not only the will of the gods, but Oedipus' youthful arrogance is to blame for what happens--he's sure that Laius deserved to die and that Jocasta will go to bed with him. And Joshua Torrez, who according to his playbill bio is only just out of college, did a great job in the role.

Oedipus El Rey has been a critical and commercial hit for the Magic Theatre and has been extended to March 14.

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