Report: Luis Alfaro's adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus El Rey. A staged reading performed at the Getty Villa, Pacific Palisades, Califas.
The recently completed run of Oedipus El Rey’s four performances has been one of those only in Los Angeles classical theatre experiences made possible by the Getty Museum's Villa Theater Lab. Last year, it was Culture Clash’s uniquely staged Aristophanes The Birds. This year it has been Alfaro and earlier in February, Ellen McLaughlin’s one-woman original work, Penelope. Upcoming in April and May are Director Michael Hackett and actor Henry Goodman with Sophocles Philoktetes, followed by Chicago's Lookingglass Theatre Company in a new work, Icarus. At $7 a head, the Getty offers the best bargain in El Lay arts (add $8 for parking).
Alfaro’s done it again with Oedipus El Rey, turning in a remarkable treatment of other people’s material. A few years ago it was Black Butterfly, Jaguar Girl, Piñata Woman and Other Superhero Girls Like Me, turning short fiction and poetry by the superb trio of Alma Cervantes, Sandra C. Muñoz, Marisela Norte into a devastatingly funny and moving masterpiece. Then it was Electricidad, borrowed from Sophocles, that, unlike Black Butterfly, made it to the Mark Taper main stage. Now Alfaro has adapted Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos moving it from plague-ridden Thebes to a modern-day California. Joined by director Jon Lawrence Rivera and a superb cast with first-among-equals Marlene Forte’s Jocasta, Oedipus El Rey will breathe new life into classical drama, and educate a new generation to the actual meaning of “oedipal”.
Evidently, such renewal is long overdue. Alfaro laughed at the audibly stunned college audience Friday night when Justin Huen’s Oedipus comes to his own realization that the man he killed on Highway 99 was his father, which means Oedipus’ wife is…gasp!! These young people must have been reeling at that point, as they thought back to their laughter following the torrid mating scene when Huen and Forte undress one another then spend three weeks cavorting in bed.
There is not much laughter in Sophocles’ play, but Alfaro injects a hugely hilarious Sphinx into the action. The Million Dollar Farmacia on Broadway is run by a three-headed critter straight out of rasquachi teatro with a strong affinity to the twin-headed beast from Men in Black 2. After solving the riddle, the old gals are out of business and the Pico-Union barrio returns to its old order. Here the overlay of ancient Thebes upon modern LA doesn’t work so well and is stretched too thin. Oedipus and Jocasta have the community’s respect. They behave like cold-hearted Don Corleones rather than the gangbangers in the news whose power derives from intimidation and extortion, not doing favors for community people while maintaining a kingly dignity and honor. And therein lies the major problem with this work-in-progress.
Turning stereotypes on their heads is part of the job description of a revolutionary poet, to affirm what would otherwise be vilified even within la cultura . And when a gifted poet is himself a pinto, his themes and images resonate with gut-wrenching authenticity. Which is why work of the late raúlrsalinas, “A Trip Through the Mindjail”, and Ricardo Sánchez, “Soledad”, should be included in any anthology of letras chicanas, along with such non-pinto pachuco poems as José Montoya’s “El Louie”, Tino Villanueva’s “Aquellos Vatos”, and J.L. Navarro’s “To A Dead Lowrider.” Powerful work that was necessary for its time.
But that was the 60s and 70s. Chicano culture has reached a kind of maturity today, and there’s less, if any, requirement to lionize our criminals. Pintos are not heroes, and they’re certainly not gods. Yet jail is where Luis Alfaro starts off his work-in-progress Oedipus el Rey, and pintos form his Chorus. It’s a strangely inappropriate starting point that Alfaro explains in the program like this: “the more versions (of Sophocles) I read, the deeper the themes of the play started to take root inside my head. I began to obsess about the notion of destiny. Well, of course, that little idea kept me awake for endless nights. Aren’t we all masters of our own destinies? That got me thinking about the sizable population that makes up our ever-expanding prison system.” Destiny? That got me thinking what about our kids who see the military as their only chance off the block?
Fortunately, Oedipus El Rey will change and grow. As Alfaro and director Jon Lawrence Rivera (pictured right,left respectively) noted during the post performance Talkback session on Saturday afternoon, Alfaro didn’t have much of anything finished even as the superb cast came together for the first rehearsal. Rivera, Alfaro, and presumably dramaturg Christopher Breyer (his name didn't come up in the Talkback), indulged the playwright’s stream of consciousness for this set of staged readings. I hope they’ll iron out the prison wrinkle in favor of something more appropriate both to Sophocles and for a contemporary audience. That noted, John H. Binkley’s spare set is beautiful and need not be changed in a finished production. Stainless steel cables hang from the ceiling suggesting the cages these men live in, and a handful of black chairs. Elizabeth Huffman’s costumes are a few red shawls, two shirts for Huen, two dresses for Forte, the other actors appear in their streetclothes. Dark glasses and cane for blind Tiresias (Winston J. Rocha) constitute the props.
I attended in the company of two high school girls. As we left the auditorium, I asked them how they reacted to the graphic profanity of the opening three minutes. “We hear worse than that in school every day,” they answered in unison, not that they enjoyed it. Their mother shrugged helplessly at that truth. Although the Getty forewarns, “This workshop contains adult themes and strong language”—it is Oedipus after all so adult themes definitely come with the territory. But strangely, only that opening dialog featured foul language. Worse, it was neither artful nor funny, neither authentic nor effective. I’d like to sit Alfaro down and pull his ear about that crap, encourage him to find what Villanueva said about his vatos, they were “uncouth but squared away”.
The cast includes gente you’ve seen and will continue seeing on television, movies, and regional theatre. Laius is Geno Silva, perfectly mature and powerful. Michael Manuel as a sappy Creon. Javi Mulero, Daniel Chacón, Bobby Plasencia play several roles but especially the three-headed hilarious Sphinx. Híjole, guys, don't change a thing, in fact, give us more!
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