Dallas — "Up close and personal" are the words for Dallas Theater Center's production of Luis Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey, based on Sophocles' classic Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.). Skillfully directed by Kevin Moriarty, with precise scenic design by Matthew McKinney and minimalist costuming by Jennifer Ables, the choice to pare down the staging to bare essentials in this modern take on the Athenian classic is conceptually flawless. Notwithstanding warnings of blood spilling onto front row audiences by the intimate setting, the space does not feel claustrophobic. (The stage blood is allegedly machine washable, but not on silk or fur).
The arena seating in the sixth-floor Studio Theatre frames an acting space of barely 6 by 8 feet. Why? It means to simulate the physical restrictions of being inside a state prison. This set thus offers the opportunity for audiences to be intimately close to the action and to the emotion. In the talk-back session after the performance on opening night, one audience member commented that at one point he felt so much empathy that he had to curb the impulse to reach out and touch Oedipus in order to comfort him. The audience was that close. As mentioned by several of the actors in the pre- and post-production conversations, this play is like being in a permanent close-up, an option usually reserved for technologically mediated forms such as film and television, which are capable of amplified familiarity by means of a lens. No room for artifice here.
The lighting, designed by Aaron Johansen, is hand-held and operated by the actors, including the simple yet apt use of two flashlights to suggest the tecolotes, or wise owls. In spite of the fact that there is no choreographer listed in the credits, the dynamic movements of the chorus around the high, outer perimeter of the seating, and the four entry-exit areas suggests choreographic sensitivity. For instance, a lengthy dialogue between Oedipus (more on Philippe Bowgen later) and his blind father Tiresias, played by Rodney Garza with the force and loving care of tough love, flows to the moves of a stylized T’ai Chi Ch’uan, which suggests both movement and stillness. The fight scenes are choreographed by Jeffrey Colangelo, along with fight captain and actor Ruben Carrazana with the assistance of Brandon Sterrett. All of the songs are crisply sung a cappella by the chorus in this sort of live surround-sound, engulfing the audience aurally. The chorus, played by all of the male members of the cast (Bowgen, Duque-Estrada, Garza, Lugo, Steve Torres and Ruben Carrazana) come off the page, alive and vibrant.
The entire ensemble is well cast. Bowgen brings an interesting mix of unaffected raw ambition, brute muscular power (of which there is plenty in this highly tattooed, corpulent piece), and vulnerability, bringing us back to tenderness and his deeply felt need of having the home he never had. This Oedipus grew up in the Big House, the California State prison system, where the play opens.
Sabina Zuniga Varela plays queen Jocasta with the elegance required of a woman of her stature, who also carries the burdened authority of someone who has borne the restrictions and repressions that custom dictates. Her physical beauty is mature enough to be convincing as mother, yet believable as capable of awakening the longings of the young Oedipus. Her need to fill in the gaping wound left by being torn at birth from her baby years ago is channeled into newly felt passion for this stranger who challenges the status quo, thus freeing her from a lifetime of sexual repression and spousal physical abuse. For once, this play demystifies the Freudian taboo, rendering it totally comprehensible.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the play, the seduction, both Zuniga and Bowgen demonstrate an ease with their bodies that allows the audience to concentrate on the content rather than getting off track with the physicality. I, for one, did not find anything offensive neither in the nudity nor the corporality of this scene. The people seated around me were not signaling discomfort in the usual ways (such as by fidgeting in their seats or nervously laughing). And while I was anticipating the love scene to be the emotional crux of the play, actually, for me, a stronger moment came during the recognition scene between mother and son. Without giving much away, the rawness of the final recognition fulfills its purpose of evoking in the audience one of Aristotle’s most important of emotions for a truly excellent tragedy: catharsis.
Daniel Duque-Estrada plays Creon, Jocasta’s brother and Oedipus’ nemesis with streetwise ease and absolute self-confidence. His facial expressions suggest a character used to communicating power, but not enough to satisfy his ever-growing ambitions. As Oedipus’ antagonist, Duque-Estrada´s performance creates an adequate counterbalance to that of Bowgen which, as such, either actor could have played the other role.
As Laius, David Lugo’s voice thunders. There is a gangster-like quality to his personae that reminds of a stately James Cagney in the 1930 film Little Ceasar, or in Public Enemy (1931).
For all of the pre- and post-discussion about the play’s posing questions of to what degree the turns and twists of our human lives are determined by fate or by free will, to me this question is moot. This is an adaptation of Greek classical tragedy—not just a “play” in the contemporary sense. A Greek tragedy, by definition, is determined by its protagonist’s harmatia, or tragic flaw—which of course is not a conscious set of actions. Thus, any hypertext of the Oedipus text which aspires to be true to the spirit of the original cannot be anything other than what it was written to be—tragedy —which means there is no escaping fate, according to Hellenic thought. We could ask a mid-20th century existentialist play that sort of question, but not a classical Greek tragedy.
However, what strikes me as relevant, thanks to the quality that Lugo projects into his Laius, is the close sociological relationship that this play has with classic Hollywood gangster films of the 1930s and 40s. Gangs today and gangsters in the earlier part of the 20th century share a similar sociology: closed social groups, insider versus outsider mentality, a strict set of rules of conduct which include loyalty and betrayal punished by death. Both portray the underbelly of American society. Both occurred during economic depressed historical moments. Both happened with ethnic minorities, in the ’30s and the ’40s it was the Italians and the Irish; today we see African-American and Latino youths. This play is not about folks who are delinquent hoods or people who are alien or different from us (meaning middle class, “respectable” society). They just had a different set of opportunities and circumstances, which modify, if not limit, the distance between wanting to change their future (and not their destiny, which is predetermined by Fate) by means of desire. As Jacques Lacan, the contemporary French theorist of Freudian psychoanalytic theory would have it; desire is not an occurrence in the realm of conscious will. It belongs in the realm of the primal, preconscious formation of the ego. Desire is instinctual.
Leaving aside heady psychoanalytic theory, the distance between what Oedipus wants (a home, a family, to watch TV, to have children) is impossible given the circumstances in which he hopes to achieve them—a highly violent and structured gang social system. Thus, in the contemporary version, the inevitability of the recidivism, a topic dear to Alfaro, is relevant not in individually moral terms—as in “Can Oedipus, or if you will, can we, change our destiny through our own free will?”—but in broader socio-economic and political ones. The fact that in the United States the prison system has become privatized and commodified as a factory of cheap manual labor is an economic issue. Obviously, it is also a judicial one. Do these kids end up in higher numbers in prison simply because they are either profiled by the police a priori because of where they live and how they look, thus getting arrested more often? And, once arrested, do they have access to competent legal representation? This is ultimately a moral issue, but not one related to individual Fate. It is a social, economic and politically moral issue concerning broader contemporary U.S. society. To divorce the two is to turn a blind eye to the obvious. A better question would be: to what degree do the opportunities that our nearest social context determines our future? Can the future of at risk kids be improved by creating the conditions to better their choices, like having better schools and social models that offer viable alternatives?
A point at hand is the very place in Los Angeles, California, described in the play: the violent Pico-Union neighborhood in Central Los Angeles. In fact, Pico Boulevard bears the name of Alta California’s last Mexican governor, Pío de Jesús Pico (1801-1894), a stately first generation Californio, a man born in the former Mexican territory that is now California, prior to Mexico’s vast territorial loss in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Pico was of Spanish, African and Native American ancestry. California was Spanish and Mexican before it was Anglo. Spanish was spoken here and in the territories of Nuevo Mexico and Tejas centuries before English. Los Angeles has always been Spanish and Mexican.
Later in the 1920s, L.A., la Reina de Nuestra Señora de los Angeles (Our Lady Queen of Angels) became the cradle of an up-and-coming affluent Mexican-American community. This was the case until the depression hit and Repatriation (the sending back to Mexico the legal immigrants the U.S. had welcomed during better economic times prior to the 1930s) became part of an ugly chapter of our history. It was the beginning of an underground culture in Los Angeles in which folks of Mexican origins, now with no jobs, struggled to become invisible given the immigration round-ups. This is the historical trace of a neighborhood that we now call a ghetto.
Today Pico-Union is one of the youngest (median age is 27), most crowded and low-income areas of L.A. (which translates to poor schools), now with a Latino composition of Mexicans and Salvadorians (mentioned in the play as crowding into the gang territory of Laius and Jocasta). It is surrounded by Koreatown, East Hollywood and Westlake. The actual borders of these neighborhoods matter. It defines its residents. This topography is where Alfaro hails from. His hood. And he got out through his desire to write and perform by telling the stories that matter most to him, by perfecting his craft through quality educational opportunities. Is the creative impulse instinctual? I do not know, however, it is curious to note that most writers say they write because they have to, marking it a compulsion, a necessity outside of conscious control. Be that as it may, the playwright’s own success offers an answer to the initial question: yes, in life some of us can modify our future; we are not stuck in a Greek tragedy.
Luis Alfaro´s tight script deserves the main credit for creating a memorable set of characters and an experience as relevant today as it was in the fifth century before Christ. Kevin Moriarty and Dallas Theater Center deserve a standing ovation for making the Wyly Theatre into a space available to Latino/a talent. Here is hoping that the “quality” issue, a lame excuse often cited as a reason for not producing Latino works, is put aside once and for all. Luis Alfaro is but one among many talented Latino/a theater artists working in the U.S. right now.
Here’s hoping the Dallas Theater Center continues supporting its commitment to an important segment of our community.
» Teresa Marrero is an Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino/a Theater at the University of North Texas in Denton