By Doug Porter
We are fortunate to live in a city where theater and the performing arts flourish. San Diego’s offerings are enriched by companies large and small; those that hew to tradition and those willing to stretch the limits of artistic expression.
The San Diego Repertory Theatre has been at it for nearly four decades, “promoting a more inclusive community through work that nourishes progressive and social values.” The current production of Oedipus El Rey speaks to those values through a modern day adaptation of Sophocles’ classic Greek drama, first performed in 429 B.C.
The ancient temples of Thebes are recast as the barrios of Southern California. Greek mysticism is supplanted by Mexican mythology. And the city-state is presented as gang turf. The familiar chorus from Greek theater is now bilingual and just as nuanced as ever.
At the core of the story here is an age-old discussion of destiny, fate and free will. Lakin Valdez (Zoot Suit, El Henry) as Oedipus rails at the Oracles for their prophecies, while making a series of specific choices, which lead him to kill his father and marry his mother. His bluster belies a quest for rationality-based aspirations; each victory is, in fact, another step towards an impending doom.
The Latino/a hue to this production works on many levels. While the audience is witnessing a classic tale unfold, the realities of gang life and the revolving doors of the prison-industrial complex are explained. The bilingualism of the script adds to the pacing, to the ironies of the characters’ existence and the humor used to break up the seriousness of the settings.
The prison cycle predetermines fate in El Rey: the cholo raised in juvie robs a Costco to get into a real prison. The man he perceives as his father robs a string of 7-11s to be able to mentor his charge.
Mother/lover/widow Monica Sanchez as Jocasta shows us a different kind of imprisonment, one that she, too, cannot escape. Abandoned as a child on the streets of Los Angeles after walking across the Sonoran desert, she seems fated to life as a moll. Her power of persuasion with Rey Laius (Leandro Cano) is limited to offering to have sex with him sans condom. His death changes little for her; she’s still trapped by expectations of the culture.
The circular core of the staging is used to great effect, indicating the passage of time and giving the audience a chance to digest the action as characters react to plot twists.
The choreography and the intensity of the supporting cast contributed to a sense that took me out of the theater; I was an observer in an alternate universe, mesmerized by the rhythms of their chants and the properties of their movement. The minimalist staging and clever lighting made it easy for my imagination to fill in the blanks.
The use of recidivism as a motif took the El Rey from a simply spanglacized classic to a powerful statement about contemporary society. The predestination of prison for young people of color (whites arrested for similar crimes at similar times in their lives are imprisoned at far lower rates) is born of the need to rationalize fear of the “other” as a means of control and continued legitimization of power.
Oedipus El Rey comes along at a time when the drug war and the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key mentality’ are being challenged. The structural racism exposed by recent confrontations in Ferguson and elsewhere have added to the sense among a growing number of Americans that something’s just not right.
The forces of the prison-industrial complex are now pushing back, hoping to supplant a more rational understanding of society with fear of a pending crime wave triggered by the downgrading of offenses under Proposition 47. (Get ready to hear these fears trumpeted early and often over the next year)
Oedipus El Rey isn’t a vanilla-flavored exploration of its themes. The tough guys are tough. Language can get coarse. The nudity and frankness of the eroticism between Oedipus/Son and Queen/Mother were definite triggers for those with a heightened sense of disgust in the audience. While I share people’s revulsion to the incestual part of the story, it felt as though some in the audience couldn’t get past that emotion.
So I suspect there will be people who can’t get past their gut reactions to see the larger picture. Take them to see the show anyway, even if that response is likely among your regular theater companions. The subliminal aftershocks may do us all some good.
Oedipus El Rey is representative of what the San Diego Repertory Theater does at its best; a strong cast, memorable performances and a story that challenges the audience. It’s more than entertainment; it’s an experience you’re likely not to forget.
This, my friends, is the real deal.
“Oedipus El Rey”
By Luis Alfaro
Directed by Sam Woodhouse
NOTE: 90 minutes running time, no intermission
Thru March 29, 2015 – Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Theatre: The Lyceum Stage
San Diego REPertory Theatre
79 Horton Plaza
San Diego, Calif. 92101-6144
Prices: Tickets start at $31 to $75 / Students $18
(Discounts for groups, seniors and military available.)
For group sales, call Kristen Schweizer at (619) 231-3586 ext. 617
San Diego REP Box Office (619) 544-1000. Tickets available for purchase online at www.sdrep.org.
Four hours free parking in the Horton Plaza Garage with validation at the theatre.