Opening Nights: Oedipus el Rey

Sophocles in the barrio.

Sophocles' Oedipus the King is only one version of the infinitely pliable and resonant Greek tragedy. Luis Alfaro's 2010 adaptation is set in "the borderland," an East L.A.–like barrio suffused with poverty, violence, and searingly poetic images. In its first full-length production, eSe Teatro beautifully extends the magical-realism vibe through Gwyn Skone's occult lighting and Kyle Thompson's vivid, plot-advancing soundscapes. Upon this promising conceptual foundation, the cast builds a succession of powerfully raw moments under the direction of Gisela Cardenas, even as Alfaro's story drifts pretty far from Sophocles. (The English text is peppered with bits of Spanish and slang.)

In a California prison, orange-clad inmates ask "Who is this man?", referring to Oedipus (Erwin Galan). We learn how Oedipus' supposed father, blind Tiresias (Carter Rodriguez), got himself incarcerated to be with his son—one of many poignantly plausible real-world details. Upon release, Oedipus heads to L.A., murdering a stranger en route (Thompson's ominous sound design coveys what we don't see). Upon arrival, he seduces a drug kingpin's widow, no-nonsense Jocasta (the spellbinding Rose Cano), and takes over the dead dealer's turf. Images of them lying together—first on a table (to the plaintive strains of a bandoneón), then against a wall, then on the floor—are shockingly tender and rehabilitating to both, which makes their unwitting incest all the more horrific. Cano's features transform from broken witch to radiant muchacha, raising the emotional stakes to a towering height. The fall is brought by news from her brother Creon (a wonderfully volatile Fernando Cavallo).

The world of this play, menacing and addictive, is hard to leave at the end. Oedipus El Rey seems unresolved, perhaps because, unlike in Sophocles' version, this king doesn't have the guts to do his own eye-gouging. The fate is the same, but there's less personal responsibility—and hence less catharsis. This Oedipus is more a cog in an endlessly grinding criminal-justice system. Still, Alfaro's adaptation feels modern, relevant, real, and timeless.

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