Plays & Prose


9 Years Later, Long Live "Oedipus El Rey"

Oedipus’ (Esteban Carmona) boyish hubris makes him want to seize the world. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Oedipus’ (Esteban Carmona) boyish hubris makes him want to seize the world. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

I’ve now lived in San Francisco long enough for plays that I saw in my first years here to be revived in anniversary productions. This June, the Cutting Ball Theatre revived their 2009 production of The Bald Soprano, and across town, the Magic Theatre revived Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey. This Chicano version of the Oedipus myth was one of the Magic’s biggest hits of the past decade, and Alfaro won the prestigious Glickman Award for its script. Although the Magic jumped the gun a bit on calling this a tenth-anniversary revival (the world premiere happened in early spring 2010), I was a big fan of the original production and looked forward to its return.

Alfaro’s script retells this ancient story amidst bustling barrios and desolate Central Valley prisons, using 6 actors: one as Oedipus, one as Jocasta, and a 4-man coro who also take on roles like Tirésias, Laius, and Creón. (It is a bit odd that the fourth man in the chorus doesn’t have a specific role.) The Latino context works very well to enhance the timeless, tragic themes of masculinity, power, sex, violence, family and fate. However, the episode with the Sphinx remains puzzling (even if la esfinge is a really fun word, and even if Alfaro heavily rewrote her scene for this production). It’s never clear who the Sphinx is meant to be in this more “realistic” setting, or how she is terrorizing the barrio.

The revised script also contains some new, politically pointed lines for the Trump era (e.g. “Like all borders these days, this one is closed”), though never to the point where such commentary overshadows the main story. And most of the edits have to deal with deeper aspects of character and plot. Alfaro has put even more emphasis on Oedipus’ hubristic arrogance: in 2010, Oedipus was described as a man “who gets high on thought”; in 2019, he “gets high on himself.” To make Tirésias’ motivations more consistent, the blind prophet now tries to avert the fated tragedy by urging Oedipus to stay away from Los Angeles, rather than urging him to go to Pico-Union and conquer it.

In my 2010 blog post on the original production, I commented that “Alfaro’s version glosses over the detective-story [aspect] of the plot” and “streamlines the original myth.” In his 2019 draft, he’s streamlined it even more. A comparison of the two scripts reveals that the climactic scene between Oedipus, Creón, and Jocasta is even shorter in the 2019 version, so the full horror all comes out in a rush.

Loretta Greco’s staging also seems, if anything, sparer in 2019 than it was in 2010. The play’s basic conceit is that the coro are incarcerated men telling stories in the prison yard, so Greco kept the stage nearly bare of furniture, not even a bed for Oedipus and Jocasta to make love upon. Though this sparseness made for all the more contrast when the wedding scene featured a lively moment when some audience members were pulled onstage and asked to shake maracas.

Tirésias (Sean San José) and his foster son Oedipus (Esteban Carmona). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Tirésias (Sean San José) and his foster son Oedipus (Esteban Carmona). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

Despite my misgivings about Alfaro’s handling of the Sphinx episode, I admit that her ancient riddle, “What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night” still resonates. At this revival of Oedipus el Rey, I spent a lot of time thinking about age and maturity. I am now about a decade older than Oedipus, and a decade younger than Jocasta. Oedipus now seemed so boyish to me. Was it a difference between the performances of Joshua Torrez (in the original) and Esteban Carmona (in this revival), or did he just seem younger because I am older?

In the play’s striking final image, the blind go on “three legs” too: the newly blinded Oedipus leans on the shoulder of the long-blind Tirésias, and they extend their white canes before them, and softly tap-tap offstage. Just moments before, our own eyes have stared in horror at the tragic climax: Oedipus kneeling before Jocasta and asking her to blind him with her fingernails; Jocasta stabbing herself in Oedipus’s arms. The intensity and gruesomeness of this image were too much for the old man seated next to me, who, in spite of the fact that the play was nearly over—this bloody catharsis is the fated ending, the only ending—stood up, and shuffled out, leaning on his own cane.