In the well of understanding

In the well of understanding

Monday, February 8, 2010

Oedipus: Master of his fate

Greek tragedy, universally and almost by definition, centered around the disquieted lives of the wealthy and nobly engendered. When one considers the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides all of the protagonists (and antagonists) are either in the direct descent of royal lineage or closely approximating some familial relation to such status. This was a central concern for Arthur Miller when he was penning Death of a Salesman: that tragedy, like all other occurrences influencing the human condition, extends its province to the affairs of conventional men and women. In Luis Alfaro’s Oedius El Rey, he “millerizes” – yes I am engaging in that pastime of making a verb of a proper noun - Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and reweaves the panorama of this ancient drama, retaining and distilling its essence; casting it with renewed vigor in the midst of Latino culture and thereby making it a staged version of a fanfare for the common man.

With minimal props and inventive directing at the Magic Theatre in Fort Mason, Oedipus El Rey debuts with flourishes which invoke the classical elements - a chorus echoing the Grecian tradition of strophe, epode and antistrophe, the hubris of mankind, the oracular vision – but add a new system of poetry steeped in the Chicano tradition – the Sphinx becomes a bruja, the elders of the community curanderos. It is a transfiguration which embodies the age old question of kismet and destiny. Whereas this is answered unerringly in the original (Oedipus is fated to his doom from birth), Alfaro revivifies it for his audience. This Oedipus may or may not come to his doom through freedom of will. Much less shrift is given to the avoidance of predestination and much more imbued in the arrogance of men drunk on power. And there is multiplicity in that also: all of the inmates of the prison from which Alfaro’s Oedipus emerges have self-styled themselves gods and demigods, and this blustering audacity – the acts they commit from its wellspring – is their undoing. Certainly fatalism is part and parcel of the tragedy but the striking note in Alfaro’s symphony is solipsism and the isolation this indulgence visits upon those who partake of its libations.

Above all, Alfaro makes it approachable. Even if one is not acquainted with Sophocles and has never heard or read the tale of his Oedipus, this El Rey is knowable. Creative touches in direction further amplify and balance out the amazing voice of the writing with significant attention to details; from the synchronicity of the chorus and the oracles to the light-hearted wedding ceremony to the confrontation between Creon and Oedipus to the passionate love-making between Jocasta and Oedipus, the play breathes and pulses. (An aside – The singing of “Always and Forever” brought me back to those halcyon high-school days and I found myself singing along).

Critically, there is one other theme which surfaces and is tied like a flower in bouquet to the whole of the production. Respect for one’s elders, and their life experiences is found wanting in the soi-disant god El Rey. Because he will not listen, he will not hear, he is the author of his own fate and the captain who takes his ship into stormy waters to circle endlessly without berth or port, literally and figuratively blind. Alfaro reinforces for us what we know, even when we choose to forget: Destiny is what we make through our actions and choices.

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