Review by Helen Shaw
Oedipus El Rey doesn’t come into its strength right away, but stick with it. Luis Alfaro’s account of Sophocles’ tragedy, lightly clothed in a mystico-poetic modern setting, begins in a frame of story theater. The actors, dressed in prison jumpsuits, pace the tiny stage of the Public’s Shiva Theater. “Oye!” they cry, calling us to heed the story of their fellow inmate Oedipus (Juan Castano), whom director Chay Yew has singled out for frequent and sustained shirtlessness. This part of the play can be extremely self-serious. “Will we remember our stories?” the prison chorus asks. “Or are we doomed to repeat them?” Well, Oedipus famously marries his mother, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), after unknowingly murdering his father (Juan Francisco Villa), so the risk of anybody else falling into the same error seems…remote.
With enough time and distance from its coy beginning, however, Alfaro’s retelling of ancient myth builds to kiln-hot intensity. Oedipus gets out of jail, leaves his adoptive father, Tiresias (Julio Monge), and falls in with the ruling family of El Barrio, including Jocasta’s brother, Creon (the superb Joel Perez). The ancient pattern holds: Oedipus ascends to power, begins to think he’s beyond supernatural correction and then is only then confronted, awfully, with the truth. Alfaro peppers his characters’ speech with Spanish words, a technique that works in fits and starts. (“Will no man be feliz / until he’s six feet under?” is one unhandsome construction.) But there are exchanges of real richness between Oedipus and Jocasta—their mutual seduction is extraordinarily brave and tender—and the performers gain power the farther they get from their early chorus identities. It takes a while for Alfaro to find Sophocles, for director Chay Yew to find Alfaro and for all the actors to find one another. But when they eventually do, it turns out those old Greek timbers are more than ready to catch fire again.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Luis Alfaro. Directed by Chay Yew. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission. Through December 3.
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