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Oedipus El Rey

Luis Alfaro puts a new spin on an ancient tale.

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Juan Castano and Julio Monge star in Luis Alfaro's Oedipus El Rey, directed by Chay Yew, at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

The king's abs look amazing: He must have worked very hard on them. Or maybe (the heretical thought creeps in) it is just genetics, the predestination of our physique, against which resistance is futile. That may be the first thing you ponder in Luis Alfaro's Oedipus El Rey (now making its long-awaited New York debut at the Public Theater, in collaboration with the Sol Project), and it's not as off-topic and superficial as you might think. Dangerous ideas and eternal debates spring forth in a production that fully engages our senses and emotions. Not bad for one of the oldest plays in human history.

Oedipus El Rey is based on Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, the story of a king who expends considerable energy trying to elude the prophecy that he will murder his father and sleep with his mother (2,500-year-old spoiler alert: he unwittingly does both anyway). While Sophocles allows these brutal revelations to unfold through lengthy monologues describing offstage happenings, Alfaro brings the action onstage and places it in a contemporary setting: the Chicano gang culture of Southern California. The result is an adaptation that feels both urgently relevant and timeless.

When we first meet him, Oedipus (Juan Castano) has spent most of his young life behind bars. He believes himself to be the son of Tiresias (Julio Monge), a blind man who guides him through the prison system. Heeding the old man's advice, he looks for honest work once he is released. Eventually, though, he ends up working with the gangster Creon (Joel Perez), who wants to transform his small-time criminal operation into a major off-ramp on the narcotics superhighway. Oedipus falls in love with Creon's sister, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), widow of the dead gang leader Laius (Juan Francisco Villa). Alfaro makes us aware from the beginning that Oedipus is Jocasta's long-lost son, and watching him slowly come to that realization is just as agonizing as you might imagine.

The whole stage pulses with life under the sweaty, passionate direction of Chay Yew. An intimate moment between Jocasta and Oedipus is among the sexiest things one can legally see on a New York stage ("intimacy" director UnkleDave's Fight-House makes the moment seem as authentic as the brutally realistic fight choreography deployed throughout the show). It is so erotic that we momentarily forget that this is a scene between mother and son; when we remember, our earlier titillation makes us feel complicit in their crime.

Juan Castano plays Oedipus, and Sandra Delgado plays Jocasta in Oedipus El Rey.
(© Joan Marcus)

Delgado and Castano's palpable chemistry makes their love seem real, leading us to reexamine what we hitherto had assumed to be a marriage of convenience. Villa exhibits a cold-blooded cruelty as Laius, which Castano's Oedipus inherits and makes his own. His rule seems inevitable. Not so for the hapless Creon, whom Perez plays like a 13-year-old who just grew his first mustache. He pathetically pleads with Jocasta, "Why not just make me the leader?" If you have to ask, the answer is no.

Yew smartly employs the indefatigable Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as the "Coro" (or chorus), with Perez or Villa often taking the role of the essential third member. They play narrating gang-bangers, botanica healers, and at one point, an Aztec-inspired Sphinx, bringing an element of Greek magic to this Mexican-American setting.

The production's aggressive theatricality extends to the design, with Fabian Obispo's sound leading the charge. Obispo makes it seems as though birds and cars are whizzing past our faces, a sensation made even more breathtaking by Lap Chi Chu's precisely timed lighting. Riccardo Hernandez's set uses installed ladder rungs and sliding bars, allowing Yew to stage for a variety of layers and levels. Anita Yavich's simple and evocative costumes pop against the complex mural by José de Jesus Rodríguez that occupies the upstage wall. Depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe, it conjures the great cathedrals of Italy as much as it does the barrio (it is based on Paul Botello's "Virgin's Seed," which can still be seen on the side of an abandoned building in East Los Angeles).

Joel Perez, Juan Castano, Brian Quijada, and Reza Salazar appear in Oedipus El Rey at the Public Theater.
(© Joan Marcus)

Alfaro illuminates the ancient themes of the Oedipus story in thrillingly modern ways, giving us a new appreciation for the myth. Our American faith in free will tells us that we can rise above any challenge through hard work and determination. But when the only honest work available to ex-convicts is the kind on which one cannot actually live, it seems fated that they will eventually turn to dishonest work. We may think that we are wiser than the ancient Athenians, but Alfaro makes a compelling case that this is merely the pride that goes before destruction.

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