Theater review: 'Oedipus el Rey' at Woolly Mammoth

February 16, 2011

Trading the temples of Thebes for the streets of Los Angeles, playwright Luis Alfaro meditates on the inexorably violent fates of Latino gang members in "Oedipus el Rey," his intense and muscular riff on Greek tragedy.

The play, under Michael John Garces's taut direction, is a gritty depiction of the ritualistic world of gangs in barrios and prisons, and reminiscent in its theatrical bloodiness and steaminess of "Oz," the late 1990s HBO cellblock drama. Although it's well-acted and ably poeticizes the brutality of gang life, "Oedipus el Rey" does resort too heavily to urban cliches about turf wars and manly codes of honor. You feel as if you've read this story before, and not just because Sophocles told it 2,500 years ago.

Given the high volume of contemporary theater adapted from the Greeks - Studio Theatre's forthcoming "Penelope," for instance, is inspired by Homer - the production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre probably would have seemed a bit more special if it had come along at the cusp of the trend a few decades ago. Even so, "Oedipus el Rey" can be gripping. The most riveting interludes occur when Alfaro diverges from the warrior elements and delves into a softer layer of the Oedipus legend. That's the graphic dramatization here of the torrid affair between Jocasta (Romi Dias) and Oedipus (Andres Munar).

Alfaro's idea is that Jocasta is the wife of gangland kingpin Laius (David Anzuelo), who orders the murder of the infant Oedipus after a seer prophesies the son's murder of the father. We're very old school, Jocasta's brother, Creon (Jose Joaquin Perez), says at one point, referring to the barrio's belief system that accepts as gospel the premonitions of soothsayers, such as the blind Tiresias (Gerard Ender), who steals Oedipus away and raises him as his own in prison.

Jocasta and Oedipus meet after a road-rage incident in which the unwitting Oedipus slays his father, and it's not long before they've got their clothes off and are rapturously entwined. Some of the dialogue comes across too much as if it is leading the witness: "You're a part of me. I don't know why," Diaz's Jocasta tells Oedipus. The stark display of passion, however, suits the evening's dramatic style. And it helps, too, that the temperature credibly rises between Diaz and Munar, who have no trouble with the illusion of irresistibleness. Diaz conveys ironclad toughness along with alluring femininity, and Munar allows for the emergence of a gentler side to a young man who believes his destiny is to rule a chunk of the city's sidewalks and storefronts.

Garces and set designer Misha Kachman heighten the voyeuristic feel of the scene by placing the naked lovers practically in the middle of the audience, on a long runway that all but divides the theater in two. Over the somber setting looms a high wall with a pair of ladders that resemble fire escapes and a metal garage door suggesting a dimly lighted warehouse.

Garces adroitly balances the often elevated language with the plot's unrelenting cruelties, culminating in the ghastly punishment Oedipus demands be meted out to him, for transgressing with his mother. And the supporting actors do convincing duty in ratcheting up the tension. Perez makes Creon's envious glares unnerving, and Anzuelo brings to Laius's vanity a persuasively dangerous edge.

"Oedipus el Rey" shifts from street scenes to the California prison in which Oedipus spent most of his life, and where the chorus becomes a "coro" of heavily tattooed Latino inmates. Both in and out of jail, Oedipus wrestles with the idea of fate and whether his is being swayed by divine forces. It's only after the tragic consequences of his actions play out and he's literally blinded that he is able to begin to see the arc of his life clearly.

"Prison may have set you free, but freedom will imprison you forever," a coro member intones, reinforcing the idea that an uncivilized life is the most confining destiny of all.

Oedipus el Rey by Luis Alfaro. Directed by Michael John Garces. Sets and costumes, Misha Kachman; lighting, Colin K. Bills; composer, Ryan Rumery. With Mando Alvarado, Jaime Robert Carrillo. About 90 minutes. Through March 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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