Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 07:01 AM
The collision of fate and free will, curse and conduct in Sophocles’ play “Oedipus the King” is a spectacle of self-destruction that resonates through the millennia.
Though it may sound incongruous, it makes good sense that California playwright Luis Alfaro has transported this classic tragedy from the lofty heights of ancient Thebes to the gangster underworld of a contemporary South Central L.A. barrio in his recent play, “Oedipus El Rey.”
Though the fit requires many artistic liberties, including a Greek chorus of orange-jumpsuited convicts, Alfaro’s drama is rooted in the poetic spirit of Sophocles. And if the textures and raplike choral poetry and the harrowing urban fatalism ring contemporary, the insights into the arrogance of violence and power apply to both ancient and modern humanity.
Alfaro also creatively draws on the darker myths and superstitions of earlier civilizations and mythologies. In his L.A., myths from Aztec, Mayan and Spanish cultures that are part of Mexico’s (and Mexican America’s) cultural DNA are alive, and dangerous.
In the Seattle debut of “Oedipus El Rey” by the Latino troupe eSe Teatro, the title character (played with intensity but with little subtlety by Erwin Galan) has spent most of his youth incarcerated. He’s been under the protection and tutelage of blind fellow inmate Tiresias (a strong Carter Rodriquez), his only loving mentor and a sage man whom Oedipus believes is his widower father.
His biological dad is, however, actually the brutal L.A. mobster godfather Laius (an imposing Robert Fuentes).
In flashbacks fluidly evoked in Gisela Cardenas’ starkly striking staging, the prophetic Tiresias reluctantly reports to Laius that his neglected, despairing pregnant “queen” Jocasta (Rose Cano) will soon give birth to a male infant — and the child will grow up to murder and usurp his gang-boss parent.
The motif of an innocent child banished by his parent, but surviving in secret thanks to the compassion of a caretaker, is common in legend.
But in the Sophocles account the repercussions are particularly horrific. Oedipus unknowingly, spontaneously kills the man who gave him life (in this retelling, during a homicidal incident of road rage). He then marries his victim’s grieving widow, and becomes a ruthless ruler also.
This transpires in “Oedipus El Rey,” with grim inevitability, on a tiny ACT Theatre stage (in the Eulalie Scandiuzzi black box venue). The profane, pitiless choral narration is interwoven with an excellent sound score (by Kyle Thompson) and sinister, shadowy lighting (by Gwyn Skone).
A memorable visual effect: the back-projected plumage of a bird representing the Sphinx that gives Oedipus his comeuppance. And Cardenas keeps the tale kinetic, with dynamic choreography in a limited space.
This is eSe’s first full play production, and it gets this evolving Latino company off to a promising start. The weak spot here is the inconsistency of the acting, which ranges from awkward and tentative to (in Cano’s case) incandescent. But the passion is evident. And the “Spanglish” expressions so common to Latino theater are very intelligible to non-Spanish speakers.
There’s no getting around it: “Oedipus El Rey,” like its model, is bleak — despite a hasty little coda about breaking cycles of violence and forging “new stories” to replace the old oppressive ones.
But it’s intrinsic to the tragedy that by the time Oedipus wakes up to what has happened, and his own role in it, he can’t bear it. The only answer is to blind himself as penance — and to serve as an example of spiritual and emotional blindness in a world of tragic temptations.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
‘Oedipus El Rey’
By Luis Alfaro. Through Dec. 16, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $20 (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).