The great Old Testament murders are fratricides, whether actual (Cain killing Abel) or symbolic (Jacob cheating Esau, Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery). Plenty of awful things happen between parents and their children, too, but they don’t involve outright slaughter. In fact, that sort of thing is declared out of bounds early on and in no uncertain terms among the Hebrews: when Abraham gets ready to sacrifice his boy Isaac per God’s instructions, an angel famously intervenes, and a whole new era is born. Offing your brother? Sometimes necessary. But leave your parents and progeny alone.
The ancient Greeks, on the other hand—pretty much obsessed with intergenerational mayhem. Even for Zeus, it was a matter of kill or be killed by his supremely vicious papa. The house of Atreus was a veritable festival of parricide, what with Agamemnon sacrificing daughter Iphigenia (no angelic intervention there), Orestes doing in mother Clytemnestra, and, back farther, Atreus himself feeding his nephews to their dad in the manner of another fabulous parent, Medea.
And then, of course, there’s Oedipus, whose fatal encounter with his father—compounded by an incestuous alliance with his mom—has come down to us so vividly thanks to Sophocles and Freud.
Without a doubt, Americans have traditionally felt most comfortable on the Hebrew side of this divide. The Founding Fathers’ admiration for Greek democracy notwithstanding, we haven’t absorbed bloody classical mythology as readily as we have the bloody biblical sort. Our great national trauma isn’t a regicide but a civil war. Which may be one reason why Eugene O’Neill plays like Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms—epic attempts to reimagine the Greek stories—tend to come across in performance sounding like translations from a foreign language.
But now Luis Alfaro has achieved what O’Neill could never quite manage. As directed by Chay Yew at Victory Gardens Theater, Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey is a marvel and a success—at once iconic and colloquial and very American.
It’s a little strange that this should be the case, since Alfaro hasn’t set his play anywhere near what most of us would recognize as the heartland. His Oedipus isn’t a kid from Kansas. On the contrary, he’s the son of a Chicano gang chieftain, Laius, who runs a car-stripping operation in the Los Angeles barrio. Steeped in folkways, as if LA were just a northern adjunct of his native pueblo, Laius consults an oracle while Oedipus is still in the womb and learns what we already know—that this baby will ultimately do him in. To prevent that, Laius assigns his most trusted henchman, Tiresius, to do in Oedipus. Naturally, Tiresius isn’t quite ruthless enough to carry out the order. He spares the child, after a fashion: though Oedipus doesn’t die, he spends so much of his life in the California correctional system that its codes and culture become his own. When he finally gets out, he’s a kind of knowing innocent, a violent child with nothing but prison rules to apply to the world. That’s why it goes so hard on Laius when, inevitably, he and Oedipus meet up as strangers venting their road rage.
Oedipus el Rey can be taken as social commentary, illustrating the situation of America’s growing underclass, whose members are—more than ever now—condemned at birth to fulfill an ugly, impoverished, criminalized destiny. And, yes, it works depressingly well that way. But it’s also considerably more. Alfaro has cannily redefined fate here: while it may be pronounced by oracles in the ancient manner, it’s essentially an operation of capital. More than any folk deity, money drives events, and business metes out fortunes—especially once Oedipus has taken over Laius’s illicit kingdom. In that way, Alfaro manages to open the play out beyond both the Greek myth and the Chicano barrio and make it speak an idiomatic American English we can all understand.
Meanwhile, Yew’s staging speaks a gorgeous visual language, powerful even in its occasional awkwardness. Thanks in large part to Jesse Klug’s lighting design, the production as a whole seems to unfold in a dream state where myth is the ambient reality. And though it never lags, the pacing is often appropriate to a dream, as when Oedipus and Tiresius have a conversation while practicing tai chi together.
There are furious passages, too, including a stunning depiction of Oedipus’s confrontation with LA’s Chicano version of the Sphinx. But the epitome of Yew’s remarkable use of time is a long, slow, unforgettable set piece in which Oedipus and his mother/bride, Jocasta, make love. A bare description makes the scene sound just plain tasteless: they do it nude on a revolving platform. The thing itself, however, is transcendent. Adam Poss and the magnificent Charin Alvarez make it clear that Oedipus and Jocasta are sublimely, intricately, inextricably bound. That the bond will destroy them is their tragedy.