San Diego, CA—-Let’s face it, The Rep’s artistic director Sam Woodhouse hit the nail on the head with his current production of Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of Sophocles Oedipus Rex, “Oedipus El Rey”, currently on the Lyceum Stage of San Diego’s downtown theatre featuring Lakin Valdez as Oedipus. The production is as riveting and searing, as it is prophetic and tragic.
Valdez, son of LuisValdez “Zoot Suit” playwright and founder of El Teatro Campensino, is no stranger to San Diego audiences. Just recently he was seen in The Playhouses co production with the S.D. Rep. in El Henry. But long before that, in 2000, a much younger Valdez was seen in his father’s play, “The Mummified Deer” in the same space.
Matured around his deep-set eyes and full mouth, but with the same youthful and engaging look, smile, stance and swagger Valdez now takes on the role of the doomed Oedipus. But don’t tell him he’s doomed from the outset, he wont have any of it. He thinks he’s in charge of his own fate.
Rather than the temple of Thebes, Alfaro sets his play first at California State Prison, North Kern State, Delano, CA, on Calle Broadway and Downtown Los Angeles, The Barrio to be exact. As played out here, the Latino gang members’ story becomes the look like, feel like and act like Greek Tragedy of “Oedipus Rex”.
As introduced from behind bars in a courtyard by a Greek Chorus with Tiresias, it is the story “about the man who lived in prison-was raised in the yard-feared by many-yet was one of our own-who lived like an orphan-even with a father at his side-who threw the first punch-and stayed for the last kick-who made the prison library his home-who got high on himself-who wanted to be-something more-a man with no limits-a hungry man-a man destined to be-the accursed”: Oedipus was his name.
But there is more to el Rey than meets the eye. Alfaro compares the life of those born to fight in the jungle streets of Los Angeles’ Barrio or any other major city, for that matter, and questions if their fate, like Oedipus’ has been predetermined before birth or compromised by a society that prejudices itself toward ‘the other’.
The playwright asks if the cycle of violence can be broken; is it destiny or fate? Can man defy the gods? Should he hold himself above the gods?
How the questions are answered, depends on those you ask.
Tiresias has raised Oedipus from infancy after his real father Laius, (Leandro Cano), a gangland macho ruler, sliced his son’s feet and abandoned him for dead. Laius thought he had killed the infant after a seer prophesied that his son would one day kill him. As fate would have it, the blind Tiresias (Matt Orduña) saved the infant and raised him as his own.
While in prison for robbing a Costco, Oedipus is warned by Tiresias, who committed crimes just to be incarcerated with and continue to foster his son, not to return to Los Angeles after he is released from prison. He cautions, get far away and start anew; change the cycle of violence and prison.
But the young and impetuous Oedipus, who has a nasty temper, has an altercation with another driver during a road rage incident (on his way to LA) and kills the other guy, whom we later learn is his real father.
He arrives at the home of his fellow inmate Creon (Jorge Rodriguiz, ‘call me king’), who lives in his sister Jocasta’s home (Mónica Sánchez) looking for shelter and a place to hide. Jocasta is in mourning for her late husband; he is now in charge of the gang’s territory. He warns Oedipus to ‘stay away from his sister”
The prophecy of the gods in Sophocles’ tragedy begins playing out in living color as the missing link, the affair between Oedipus the son and Jocasta his mother happens almost instantly. Before they/we know it their clothes are off (all off) and the lovemaking, starts.
The prison-hardened Oedipus, who will one day take most of the business of stripping down cars, mostly Hondas, and selling the parts for cheep, away from Creon (who inherited it from Laius after his death), will show a more tender and softer side as Valdez maneuvers between lover and gangsta, tough guy and passionate companion. She on the other hand, is totally smitten after a few sparks fly and the loss of her husband is lost in the passion of lovemaking.
Both Valdez and Sánchez, who is tough as well as tender, team up to present a united but tragic couple so much in love that reality disappears, and illusion sets in. Now nothing else matters in their world until the truth of their identities turns to tragedy when both learn what they did and to whom. (“I never knew my mother. She left me to a life of picking pockets, selling pot and juvenile detention. Mother’s sometimes do that”. )
And yes, the gods do get their way; she commits suicide but not before he insists that she gauge his eyes from their sockets in order for him to see the light “Take these eyes from me…all that I have seen. The darkness and the light… Take them from me…Do it because you love me”. “Mi hijo”/My son.
Armed with a spectacular cast including Spencer Smith (who is also responsible for the choreography) and Dave Rivas who play various characters including the Greek Chorus and storytellers, the technical aspects of this production shine as in Lonnie Alcaraz’s spot on lighting design that highlights every scene’s importance.
Yoon Bae’s set design is as simple as concentric circles on the prison floor to the more intricate and effective sliding panels with colorful large Aztec calendars affixed. The panels open and close off spaces that maximize and allows enough room for fighting, Flight choreography (George Yé), dancing and lovemaking.
Jennifer Braun Gitting’s costume designs from simple prison duds to Sanchez’s colorful costumes, to a slinky and flowing white floor length contemporary sheath, to her otherwise queenly fashions are gorgeous.
It all comes together with Woodhouse’s vision. He manages to weave all the elements together making this 2500-year-old tragedy pulse with life in a way San Diego audiences have not seen in some time.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through March 29th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Production Type: Drama/Tragedy
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $31.00
Venue: Lyceum Stage