Does Oedipus el Rey Retain the Cathartic Charge of Sophocles’ Tragedy?

At the Dallas Theater Center, director Kevin Moriarty's immersive, claustrophobic staging works because it traps its audience on a non-stop ride to a horrific conclusion.

Mention the name “Oedipus” and most people have at least a spark of recognition. That’s the guy who killed his father and slept with his mother—pretty memorable stuff. Sophocles’ famed version of the Greek myth may have been written thousands of years ago, but numerous interpretations (and Sigmund Freud) have kept the story alive. Luis Alfaro’s Latino update, set in a gritty, modern-day LA, works mainly because it uses recidivism and prison as a stand-in for the fate some people cannot escape.

At Dallas Theater Center, director Kevin Moriarty’s immersive, claustrophobic staging within the upstairs Studio Theatre works because it traps its audience on a non-stop ride to a horrific conclusion, one we know is coming yet cannot avoid. What doesn’t work so well are the moments the play assumes we know so thoroughly that they don’t warrant emphasis. When Oedipus confesses his true identity to his wife/mother Jocasta, her horror lies not so much in her abhorrent carnal acts and ruined marriage vows, but in the fact that she has met her previous husband’s murderer. The play’s big reveal feels rushed, a side note rather than the dawning moment of repulsed recognition we expect and perhaps even need if we are to experience the full Aristotelian force of tragedy.

The myth’s many Cliff Notes moments are glossed over throughout Oedipus el Rey, resulting in an odd rhythm that nonetheless allows the play’s less flashy pockets of drama to enlighten and engage. After 90 minutes of whiplash-inducing scenes, it’s the smaller interactions that leave a more lasting impact.

Much like its source material, this Oedipus discloses early that King Laius will one day be killed by his son, who will then marry the queen and assume the throne. Here Laius (David Lugo) is king of the streets, a mean and unforgiving man who immediately casts out his newborn while his wife  Jocasta (Sabina Zuniga Varela, oozing queenly strength) recovers from childbirth in a haze of pills and booze. “It’s a tiny death,” Laius says coldly. “We’ll laugh about it later.”

After bouncing around juvie for most of his life, Oedipus (a boyish yet intense Philippe Bowgen) finally ends up in North Kern State Prison, where the blind Tiresias (Rodney Garza) takes him under his wing. The tender moments between these two shine—watching Garza shove Bowgen away instead of embracing him upon his departure is shattering. Once he’s out, however, Oedipus struggles with his freedom. In a flash of heated rage he kills a man who refuses to give way on the road and then begs his juvie pal Creon for a place to crash. Jocasta, Creon’s newly widowed sister, of course proves irresistible to the young, inexperienced man.

There is much analysis within the program of the country’s high recidivism rates. An astonishing 70 percent of all inmates return to the very prison where the play is set, a very real statistic that looms large over Oedipus as he navigates world on the outside. This notion that crime controls his life is furthered when he enmeshes himself with Creon’s gang, eventually grasping the mantle of leader but alienating the other members with his brash machismo and outsider status. We’re told often that tradition is big in the barrio, a knowing wink to the foundation of soothsayers in the Greek original.

Matthew McKinney’s arena-like set shrinks the main playing space down to a few stark square feet, putting the actors practically in the audience’s laps (the first few rows are designated as a stage blood “splash zone”). The coro of tough, tattooed prisoners pump iron and run laps behind our backs, surrounding us with testosterone and a musically intoned mix of Spanish and formal English.

The lighting, designed by Aaron Johansen but executed mostly by the cast, relies on large, handheld spotlights which throw ominous and brutal shadows. They soften when Jocasta and Oedipus undress and entwine in their passion, curling up erotically in a scarlet sheet and baring their souls. To have gone blind, someone says of Tiresias early on, he must have done something bad. Watching Oedipus hurtle head-first into his sightless doom is all the more disturbing when we’re not allowed to look away.

Editor’s note: There is male and female nudity, scenes of violence, and plenty of fake blood. Obviously, not for the kiddos.

Image by Karen Almond for the Dallas Theater Center