Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Theater review: Oedipus el Rey adopts the classic Greek tale to a Los Angeles prison
Find out if the same moral lessons hold true more than 2,000 years later.
“To tear down all the wrong possible futures before they happen … isn’t that what we all strain to do, in daily increments?” — Hunter Styles in his review of Oedipus el Rey at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington DC.
“Chance rules our lives, and the future is all unknown. Best live as we may, from day to day.” — Oedipus the King by Sophocles
Does chance rule our lives? Do where and when we are born, what ethnic group we belong to and the neighborhood we grow up in determine our fate? If so, what power do we have and to what extent can we overcome the chance of our origins? Playwright Luis Alfaro uses the statistics of prison incarceration and recidivism in South L.A. as a stand-in for fate or destiny in his adaptation of the Oedipus myth. The before show talk and press handouts dwell on these numbers and point to the sad truth he is bringing to our attention.
In Sophocles' familiar script, fate or predetermination, along with hubris or pride, brings about the downfall of Oedipus the King. In attempting to escape his destiny, he unknowingly kills his father and beds his mother thereby fulfilling the very fate he has tried to outwit. This, of course, leads Oedipus to become the archetype of the Tragic Hero and the Oedipus complex as a staple of Freudian analysis. Can this touchstone tragedy be translated into our own society and have the same impact it did 2,500 years ago? Can the sordid reality of our current prison system and its hold on certain areas of our society stand in for the whims of the gods? Modern day L.A., prisons, the barrio, drug lords and gangsters — can these be shaped into a landscape to form the backdrop for this story? Playwright Alfaro and the Dallas Theater Center seem to think so, and in a powerful and emotionally gut-wrenching production, playwright, director, cast and crew bring this ancient masterpiece screaming and lunging into the present. If some of the social message gets lost in the focus on the more human story of Oedipus and Jocasta, we are still caught up in the terrible truth of the inevitable and watch in fear and pity as it unfolds.
“How dreadful knowledge of the truth can be when there’s no help in truth!”
Certainly, in this version, Oedipus is not some “great man,” just a boy, really, barely out of his teens, who has known no life but that of the streets, “juvie” and serving hard time. Can this character be a fit subject for tragedy? There was disagreement about Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman being a tragic figure when it was first produced, but perhaps our definition of the Tragic Hero has changed enough over time to let us accept the humanity in everyone and allow ourselves to see their tragedy as a reflection of our own frailty. In this adaption, while Oedipus may not be a royal figure in the traditional sense, he still becomes the center of an emotionally charged story fraught with eternal questions of destiny, fate, and free will.
“O god - all come true, all burst to light! … I stand revealed at last – cursed in my birth, cursed in marriage, cursed in the lives I cut down with these hands!”
In the title role of Oedipus, Philippe Bowgen dazzles with his emotional and physical intensity. Wide-eyed and innocent in some moments, he can become strong and confident when the situation demands it. And while some of the hubris commonly associated with the character may not be present early in his performance, after his love scene with Jocasta, the boy becomes a man and we begin to see not only his vulnerability but his strength and, yes, pride. It’s a passionate and full-out performance with no holding back vocally or physically and without commenting on his character, he simply presents the raw emotion and physical embodiment of the conflicts suffered by the man. The realization of Oedipus’ crime/sin at the end is devastating and spot-on, raw and open.
Matching him moment-for-moment and emotion-for-emotion, fully present in every scene, is the powerhouse performance of Sabina Zuniga Varela as Jocasta. A woman aching for the loss she has never been able to replace and recognizing the same in Oedipus, Ms. Varela is strong, seductive and vulnerable all in the same moment. Wearing a simple white long sheath dress, she moves gracefully and forcefully around the stage, needing no royal robes or crown to define her place in this world created for us. The final moments with Oedipus will crush your heart.
Outstanding among The Coro, or Chorus, is David Lugo as Laius. He’s strong, sure in his position as king of the territory he rules, and physically formidable in his presence. His road rage scene with Oedipus is memorable in its reality, intensity and focus. He is no less commanding in his other appearances as El Huesero, and especially as part of Esfinge where his vocal work is especially effective.
Creon, played by Daniel Duque-Estrada, is equally outstanding. He takes the role and fleshes it out so that the whole brother-sister relationship, and the sniveling lieutenant yearning to take the crown, is immediately clear and never less than fully developed evidenced by his shifty eyes and weasel-like moves. He is a welcome new member of the Brierley Resident Acting Company.
Rodney Garza is blind Tiresias, in this incarnation of the tale, the surrogate father to Oedipus who goes to prison deliberately to be available to watch over him. Their Tai-Chi scene is a marvel of both father-son relationship and acting skill combined with physical movement. Even as he plays a blind man, in his scenes with Oedipus we feel the physical and spiritual connection between them that Garza achieves even without direct eye contact. His definition of fatherhood late in the play hits home whether you are a biological or adoptive parent, or merely a man in the position to assume the role. The final image of the play is one you won’t forget.
Rounding out this stellar cast are Ruben Carrazana and Steve Torres both as Coro and multiple other roles. Their strong presence is in no way less effective than the other cast members and the total ensemble work together to create a profound and thought provoking experience.
“The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves.”
Upon entering the sixth floor at the Wyly Theatre the audience finds themselves in a chic, dimly-lit lounge complete with bar, sofas, tables with soft lighting and over the bar, an immense pair of wings. (These pay off in the play as we later discover.) All is tinkling along with regular cocktail party smoothness until, suddenly, we are called to order by a loud voice high on a platform above us. Rules for the performance are given, and we are told to line up single-file and follow the instructions of the ushers inside. What we find is that the sixth floor Studio Theater space has been turned into an oval, arena-shaped space with one main entrance and banks of seats. The playing space in the center is maybe six by eight feet, unelevated, with audience on the front rows absolutely in the ensuing action.
All around the top of the arena and behind the audience is a platform or catwalk filled with inmates in prison sweats and undershirts lifting weights, chanting, whistling, and calling to each other. It’s a prison-like space, claustrophobic and confining. It also echoes the earliest of Greek theaters in its design. There are two aisles with normal steps and another with steps that are about 12-14 inches high opposite the main entrance. This is the exciting design of Matthew McKinney and it works fantastically well for this production.
There is no tech crew, per se, all the sound done live by the actors including a capella singing of old popular songs and bird-like sounds. (In the original, Tiresias, the blind seer, speaks to birds). Movement of lighting instruments held in position and following the action is also done by the cast, the majority of whom never leave the space. The lighting design by Aaron Johansen consists of ungelled instruments aimed at the ceiling for reflected light and also at center stage. The movement of the instruments by the actors helps the movement and flow of the story, amplifying and enriching the presentation. The aisle steps and the catwalk are as much a part of the playing space as the central area and keep the action fluid and dynamic at all times,
Thanks to Kevin Moriarty’s masterful direction, the pace, focus and intensity of the piece never lag and indeed his decision to confine the action to such a small space only condenses the tragedy into a much more personal and powerful experience. There are wonderful small moments, the kissing of eyes for one (blindness and being blind to the truth play a huge role in the original by Sophocles). Moriarty has gleaned wonderful performances from his cast and made the experience one you won’t soon forget. Being so close to the actors in such an intimate space enfolds you and demands that you be present as much as they are. The prolonged nude scene between Oedipus and Jocasta is not only erotic, but intensely moving, tender and terrible because you cannot separate yourself from it as you could in a typical proscenium production in a large venue. The same holds true for the violence and the intense emotional action – not to mention the blood!(Completely washable, we are told!) It forces the actors to be honest and real and the confined space we share forces the audience to experience that same honesty and realty.
So much physical violence and stage blood presents technical problems for the actors and the fight designer. Thankfully DTC has found Jeffrey Colangelo to take on that job and he does a bang-up (pun intended) job! The fights and other violence are never less that absolutely real and all the more powerful for being done at such close quarters. Kudos to Colangelo and the actors.
The costumes by Jennifer Ables are deceptively simple: sweat pants with the prison logo and “wife beaters” or T-shirts on the men are used along with a few hats, etc, to create new characters. Lots of prison tattoos that help to tell the story of each character are fascinating. I was curious as to whether those were the designer’s choices or the actors – and how many were real! The total visual simplicity of the production works powerfully to focus the attention on the performances and the story.
“Count no man happy ‘till he dies, free of pain at last.”
This isn’t, of course, the first ancient tragedy to be updated on stage, in film or in literature. Indeed, prizewinning playwright Alfaro has also written plays about Medea and Electra, two other famous Greek tragic tales. But he puts the love story of Oedipus and Jocasta squarely at the center of this version and in doing so, makes it much more human and relatable and, in a sense, even more tragic because we get to see the spaces each fills for the other by their very being. If the social message he hoped to send is overshadowed by the love story, we are still engrossed because we care about these people and they are not remote, larger than life “tragic figures,” but accessible. This may not be great tragedy in the classic sense, but it is great storytelling and infinitely moving for today’s audiences. While the final powerful image speaks to Alfaro’s social concerns and visually re-states his premise about recidivism, it also speaks of love and enduring connections humans can make with one another.
This is a bold and powerful production well worth your attention and appreciation.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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