East L.A. Meets Ancient Greece in “Oedipus El Rey”

A Western classic talks Spanglish in this bold and bloody Latinx adaptation.

The prison workout plan. / Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

Classical Greek statues were not as stark as they appear in museums today: all that pale, bloodless marble. Using ultraviolet light, infrared, and X-ray spectroscopy, archaeologists have been able to determine that the carved relics were elaborately painted and even detect which colors were used. Today, the eye-popping reds and blues you see in computer renderings look downright gaudy.

With that in mind, playwright Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey is a shrewdly judged adaptation. This is not the stately, stilted tragedy of the man who killed his father and married his mother that we read in Sophocles; it’s a ballsy, barrio crime story of honor and vengeance, brimming with betrayal, forbidden sex, and Catholic guilt. In other words, Alfaro dug deep to find common roots that bind East L.A. to ancient Thebes.

In fact, brilliant colors are what greet the eye upon entering the Public’s Shiva Theater. The back wall of the space is covered in a huge mural (the spare and effective set design is by Riccardo Hernandez). It’s the kind of mural you see in urban neighborhoods: an eight-foot-high Virgin Mary with flames exploding around her, roses, angels, and orange trees. The rest of the set mostly consists of prison bars on tracks, moved around by the actors onstage.

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The spotlight is on Tiresias (Julio Monge). / Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

The play is framed by scenes in prison. Oedipus (“Patas Malas” in this world, since the original Greek means “swollen foot”) is a young, brooding convict played by Juan Castano. Born to an L.A. crime boss named Laius (Juan Francisco Villa) and his wife, Jocasta (Sandra Delgado), Oedipus was prophesied to be a man who killed his father and slept with his mother. Hearing this dire forecast, Laius paid an associate to kill the infant. Of course, the goon doesn’t, and instead the boy is raised by Tiresias (Julio Monge). The wise blind man never told his adopted son the true story of his birth. These events are narrated by three chorus members—Reza Salazar, Brian Quijada, and Joel Perez—who also transform into various supporting characters.

Eventually, Oedipus tries to lead a law-abiding life. But socioeconomic forces—an unlivable minimum wage and racism, for starters—drive him back to his old neighborhood and the temptation of crime. Soon he kills a stranger in an incident of road rage (guess who that guy is) and falls in love with an older woman introduced to him by a gangster friend. What makes Alfaro’s version markedly different from the source, apart from its Spanglish dialogue and modern locales, is the focus on Jocasta and Oedipus’s romance. Has any playwright previously invested so much in the courtship and sex life of this particular mother and son? So the resourceful director Chay Yew and his two brave (and very fit) performers act out a prolonged nude scene in which Oedipus and Jocasta marvel over this deep, mystical connection they feel.

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The wrong side of the chair. / Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

For all its swift, movielike cuts and irreverent humor, the 100-minute Oedipus El Rey bogs down in its final stretch to the bloody resolution and could lose about 15 minutes to wrap things up. Most of us know where the narrative is heading. It’s a bleak rewrite of an already grim story, in which a man in search of his origin destroys himself—and those around him. Still, I admire that Alfaro found a sharp and vibrant new slant on this deathless tale.

Why You Should Go: Tons of swearing, killing, and Latin rap: Western Lit 101, this is not.

Oedipus El Rey
Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street (near Astor Place), East Village
Through Sunday, December 3
$35 for members; $60 for nonmembers

Call us to reserve your seat before it’s too late.