Oedipus el Rey
‘Oedipus’ leaves one breathless
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
|Oedipus el Rey|
Review by Lauren Whalen
Chay Yew is the best thing that’s happened to Chicago theater in years. His inaugural season as Artistic Director of Victory Gardens has been nothing short of electrifying. I’ve left AMERIVILLE, We Are Proud to Present… and now Oedipus el Rey in desperate need of air. And that’s a good thing: I’ve been so inspired, shocked and awed by the magnitude of these productions that for ninety minutes, breathing just wasn’t a priority. Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey brings perhaps the world’s best-known tragedy – a staple of English and drama classes everywhere – to a Los Angeles barrio. The result is a tight, tense and bloody exploration of the stories we’re born with, and the destinies we’re doomed to enact.
Prisoners snarl and prowl about the theatre like caged animals as the story unfolds: in a deeply superstitious and violence-ridden gang community, kingpin Laius (Madrid St. Angelo) learns that his unborn child will one day kill him. After doping up wife Jocasta (Charin Alvarez), Laius instructs the blind Tiresias (Eddie Torres) to kill the baby – but not before slashing the infant’s foot to guarantee “he won’t follow me in the afterlife”. Years later, Oedipus (Adam Poss) is intelligent but cocky. Raised by Tiresias in prison, he’s soon to be released – and drawn to the LA neighborhood of his former fellow inmate Creon (Arturo Soria). But what of the man he kills en route? The older widow he falls for after she takes his virginity? In his rise to gang power, Oedipus learns of a devastating secret – and the prophecy which he had no chance of escaping.
Everyone knows the tragedy of Oedipus: despite the best of efforts, he’s fated to murder his father and marry his mother. It’s a disgusting and horrifying ending, but a familiar one – and placing ancient stories in rough settings is nothing new. Yet Luis Alfaro’s script is stunning in its originality. While following the story almost to the letter, Alvaro maneuvers the plot in such a way that the audience forgets what is next and pays tribute to the classical elements (such as the Greek chorus) in innovative ways, without letting them overshadow the themes. Kevin Depinet’s set and Jesse Klug’s lighting recall the dank atmosphere of prison and the grime of the barrio – where a man’s blood is mopped up just as nonchalantly as a rain puddle – with such clarity one can almost smell them. Mikhail Fiksel deserves kudos for the final sound effect alone, and Ryan Bourque’s fight choreography is graceful in its brutality.
Yew’s devotion to the production’s horrific glory shines through every ragged breath and agonized scream. Even the smallest blocking is glaringly honest, and a post-coital scene is so realistic it almost feels wrong to watch. In turn, each performer is a solo force and a collective power. Poss’ haunted gaze and fervent gestures are those of a young hood way over his head. Torres beautifully paints Tiresias’ own personal tragedy: a surrogate father whose lifelong promise to protect goes terribly awry. Alvarez’s Jocasta is a revelation, beaten down by life with a burly husband and the memory of a lost baby, but with an almost childlike willingness to love more. St. Angelo is the only weak spot: at times his Laius seems forced and the dialect not quite as accurate.
Victory Gardens has long prided itself on cultivation of fresh, exciting voices in playwriting. In this past season, Yew has taken this mission and shot it into the stratosphere, where hopefully it will stay for years to come. Oedipus el Rey had my viewing companion – a cynical former actor – leaping to his feet after the last explosive boom. I don’t know how Yew does it, but I can’t wait for next season.
Oedipus el Rey continues through July 29th at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20-$50, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). This production contains nudity. More information at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 95 minutes without intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Chay Yew (director); Kevin Depinet (set); Jesse Klug (lighting); Mikhail Fiksel (sound); David Hyman (costumes); Ryan Bourque (fight choreography); Tina M. Jach (stage manager); Michael Brosilow (photos)