“Oedipus El Rey” at the Magic Theatre

“Oedipus El Rey” at the Magic Theatre

Carol Benet

The Magic Theatre in Fort Mason is one of the best in the Bay Area.  Under  the artistic direction of Loretta Greco, it brings some of the most intriguing works to the stage.

After 10 years the Magic is currently replaying “Oedipus El Rey”, an update of Sophocles’ Greek Classic.   Luis Alfaro, winner of a MacArthur Genius Grant and many other awards, playwright, director at important American theaters and professor, has always been at the forefront of the Latino theater movement.

This is the play’s fourth production at the Magic where it was nurtured starting 10 years ago. Since then it has had 20 productions nationwide showing that this play is eternally relevant to society’s problems..  Just think of the millions of replays of Sophocles’ original work from the 5th century B.C.

This “Oedipus”, so skillfully directed by Loretta Greco,  starts in a medium security prison in Kern County, California, where four prisoners are doing exercises.  One performs difficult prison yard maneuvers while the others taunt him with punches.  He is the young Oedipus played by an excellent actor Esteban Carmona.  Then from offstage in comes a blind Tiresias (Sean San José) whom Oedipus thinks is his father because of his love and his guidance of his education and the many hours they spend together in the prison library.

When Oedipus is let free Tiresias warns him against going to Los Angeles.  He suggests going to  Las Vegas, “the land of the exiles”, instead but Oedipus is a headstrong young man overruled by pride. All the time Tiresias knows the the real father and mother are in L.A.  Tiresias is well-aware of the curse the gods placed on Oedipus saying that he would kill his father — and yes, marry his mother.  And as fate would have it, in  L.A. at a cross road, like the myth says, Oedipus kills a man over a road rage incident.

The story is not chronological at times as mixed in is that of a woman Jocasta (Lorraine Velez) who is about to give birth. After her baby is born, her husband Laius (Gendell Hing-Hernandez) tears it away from her as he knows the curse and fears the baby will someday kill him.  Although Laius believes  he has killed the baby, he has not and the babygrows up to be the strapping youth Oedipus.

Oedipus wanders in L.A.Griffith Park where he encounters hawkers of tee shirts bearing the name of sports’ idols like Chicharito, and others selling food and trinkets.  With a change of shirts, hats and masks, these vendors are the same four actors who play the chorus, the owls who tell the story, the healers and the prisoners.  The fine actor Juan Amador is their leader.

After the murder Oedipus encounters Jocasta and her brother Creon (Armando Rodriguez) who run a  business together and aspire to be the leaders of the community. Oedipus falls in love with Jocasta whose husband has just died.   A love scene, nudity and all, takes place after which Oedipus and Jocasta supposedly spend three months in bed.  Then they marry; then the truth comes out; then the tragedy unrolls (le dénouement).

When  Oedipus discovers that he killed his father and married his mother,  he insists that she claw out his eyes dashing his hopes of being a king of the community.   Fate takes over and his brash disregard of the gods insures his downfall. Jocasta in turn takes a knife, plunges it into her pregnant belly and thus ends the cycle of tragedy.

“Oedipus Rey” is a sobering update that highlights the many problems that the Latino youth face in our society.  The revolving door of imprisonment where half of the youth return after being released, the squalor of a L.A. barrio such as Pico-Union with its illegal activity in occupations that the youth feel they must  join  to survive, their lives as what Jocasta calls “border people” in the hotbed of gang activity where they struggle amongst themselves for domination are all screamingly real in this play.

Jake Rodriguez’s sound effects with the highway in the background and the gates slamming shut in the prison, the set and projection design by Hana Kim, costumes by Ulises Alcala, lighting by Wen-Ling Liao and fight direction by Dave Maier all create an “Oedipus Rey” that is an example of why classic theater survives through the millennia with updates of current social situations that are always real and moving as in this stunning production.

“Oedipus Rey” runs at the Magic Theatre through June 23, 2019.  magictheatre.org or 415 441 8822.

About the Author

Carol BenetCarol Benet received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, where she won an Outstanding Teaching Award. She also received a B.A. in English and an M.A. in French Language and Literature from the University of Michigan. Her teaching assignments have been at UC Berkeley, UC Berkeley Extension, Dominican University and Washington State University. Currently she holds literature discussion groups in Marin County and San Francisco and is a critic of the arts for The Ark Newspaper and a contributor to ARTSSF.com and ForAllEvents.com.View all posts by Carol Benet →