How the Dallas Theater Center Plans to Give the Oedipus Story a New Twist

To stage the ambitious Oedipus el Rey, the Dallas Theater Center’s Kevin Moriarty thought inside the box.

Think about sitting in the nosebleeds at a baseball game. There’s an edgy nervousness that comes with cheating gravity. The steepness forces you forward, experience suggests you won’t join the action below, but there’s a mental waltz with the what-if. That’s what Kevin Moriarty, the Dallas Theater Center’s artistic director, is going for. Except smaller. Much, much smaller. And darker. Much, much darker.

Moriarty, bright-eyed and animated to the point of feverish, pitches himself forward in his chair to illustrate the point. He has less than 30 minutes until rehearsal for A Christmas Carol, but he’s sitting at the little white table in his office talking about a different play entirely. Charles Dickens’ classic will get a big fancy production in the Potter Rose Performance Hall, the 550-seat crown jewel in the gleaming vertical box.

Meanwhile, we’re about to take a trip down to the Wyly’s sixth floor to look at a mostly empty black box theater, where Moriarty will direct Oedipus el Rey, a contemporary retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. He has spent more than a year ruminating over abstract themes and ideas, but the first practical question is where approximately 125 people will sit.

“We now start each creative-design meeting for a play by asking, ‘Where do we want the audience to sit in relation to the actor? And how can we make the space as dynamic and unique as possible for this production?’ ” Moriarty says. “So now when we’re producing else events where, such as in the studio space, we start with those same questions.”

The myth of Oedipus looms larger in our collective consciousness than Moriarty’s choice of space might reflect, thanks in part to high school English teachers and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of man’s repressed desires. The disturbing plot—a baby, born to a noble family, fated to grow up to kill his father and marry his mother—is meant to inspire what Aristotle called in Poetics “pity and fear.”

The playwright, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Luis Alfaro, gives us both the epic and real. Alfaro, who was born in California to Mexican-American farmers and writes extensively about modern Chicano culture, plucks the story out of the hands of fickle gods. The machine that dooms Oedipus at birth is not prophecy from on high but a cycle of poverty, drugs, and prison. The ancient city of Thebes is now a substantive barrio just outside Los Angeles controlled by Latino gangs. A boy looking to be a man does it by wresting power from an established gang leader, which is what young Oedipus does after he’s released from the prison where he spent his formative years. He makes a name for himself by killing Laius, the neighborhood kingpin. When he meets Jocasta, Laius’ girl, the attraction is instant, a seemingly perfect example of Plato’s theory of romantic love. Here, finally, is completion.

Alfaro doesn’t shy away from his subject matter. The dialogue is a mix of English and Spanish. There is graphic incestual sex, nudity, and violence. Lives are destroyed. The play, no matter how ancient its source material, “wants to be immediate,” Moriarty says.

As we’re waiting in his office for Barbara Hicks, DTC’s production manager, Moriarty says his first thought was to create a prison onstage, giving the audience a more traditional view. Then he considered caging in the audience, but 125 warm bodies sipping Champagne out of geometric Wolfgang Puck Catering flutes does not a prison cell make. Since the theater’s opening in 2009, the DTC has only presented two shows here: Neil LaBute’s The Beauty Plays and Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still. Both plays, written by contemporary writers, required closeness, for different reasons.

The space is an opportunity to get back to basics and experiment with content and scale. Oedipus el Rey represents a different challenge. There’s Alfaro’s commentary on the dismal statistics of recidivism and incarceration. There’s the anguish of indigent immigrant populations pushed to the fringes of society. And there’s the big Greek myth, the horrifying events of the play. Moriarty had to prioritize.

“We need to have some kind of space that can make this experience happen—immediate, personal, live, dynamic—without realistically trying to depict it,” Moriarty says.

His next idea was to build a circular structure that recalled the massive outdoor amphitheaters of Sophocles’ day. A theater in the round with the actors in the middle. But the actors didn’t fit, and a half-circle didn’t give that aggressive stadium feel.

The first production meeting was in August in the Studio Theatre. Hicks and Moriarty met with the heads of scenery, costumes, lights, and sound. They pulled out tape measures and rearranged chairs. Turns out, they needed 10.3 by 6.3 feet, enough for two people to lie side by side on the ground without their heads getting cozy with someone’s shoes.

“We left that meeting thinking either that we had a really exciting idea or a really crazy idea, and that I would come to my senses in the
next week,” Moriarty says.

But he couldn’t get the idea out of his head. Moriarty and Hicks say they’ve never done or seen anything where the acting space is so small that the actors can’t fit. Sound and lighting technicians wouldn’t fit, either, so Moriarty brought in detachable car headlights. It’s as primitive as the Dallas Theater Center gets.

An oval structure, high and tight, was taking shape. A window would be blacked out. There would be a ring of seats on the ground, and three levels of seats at a steep rake, forcing the audience forward just the way Moriarty wanted. When he was reminded that there were seven actors, not two, he added a runway around the top. There’s no escape (except in case of emergency) for actors or audience. Costume changes will be done in full view. You’ll probably touch knees with a stranger.

But will it work?

“It’s easy I think for any of us who work in institutions … to start thinking that there’s something audiences want, which is what they’ve seen before, so we should give them that,” Moriarty says. “And there’s something we want, which is different, and we should negotiate that barrier. So this will be yet another of the many, many experiments we’ve done here saying, what if that barrier doesn’t exist?”


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