It's been some 2,500 years since old Sophocles injected the horrific story of Oedipus the King into the cultural gumbo of human civilization. But whether the empathetic but hubristic king is the ruler of ancient Thebes or — as in Luis Alfaro's tight, fierce, gripping new adaptation, "Oedipus el Rey" — the gangland of South Central Los Angeles, there's one word that still slays 'em in their seats like no other. It depends on the translation, but the great moment of Oedipal recognition always climaxes with something like this:
Monday night at the Victory Gardens, it was not followed by "I've killed a man," although I must say Freddie Mercury's lyric popped into my head. That moment between Jocasta and Oedipus is not just about patricide — that already happened, back when Oedipus stupidly killed a guy who turned out to be his pop, even though he'd been warned of the possibility. No, that climactic declaration of maternal recognition follows a beautiful love scene betwixt mother and son — a long and sultry love scene that, in director Chay Yew's unstinting and deftly cast production, takes place on a little turntable between a naked Adam Poss and Charin Alvarez. It is as connected and sexually intimate a tableau as one is ever likely to see on a Chicago stage. The force of their sexual and emotional need for each other only emphasizes the impending horror we all know is coming before the final curtain.
Like Sophocles, Alfaro is a deft manipulator of dramatic irony, that technique that gives the audience more knowledge than the characters. Still, it was the one-word
cri de coeur that came from Poss, playing a man who now no longer can stand to see anything, that caused many in the opening-night audience to become part of a little responsive symphony of verbal discomfort. One woman near me let out quite a howl, which is one indication of a tragedy doing its job. For their part, Poss (the fine young actor who holds down the force of will of this production) and Alvarez (who surely is doing the best work of her long Chicago career), grab each other in just the right combination of unmitigated need and sudden, total self-disgust.
Alfaro's 95-minute play, which has been seen in other cities but was revised for this production, takes what dramatic theorists would call an early point of attack on the Oedipus myth. We first meet Oedipus in prison, where his fellow inmates are passing time by telling each other stories, thus forging both an outer frame (replete with a Greek chorus of convicts) and, to some extent, a flashback structure. In prison, our boy lands under the guidance of Tiresias (Eddie Torres), a surrogate father who warns him about going to South Central, suggesting, once released, that he head to the safety of the desert instead and work as a busboy in a Las Vegas buffet. But once released, the hot-headed Oedipus doesn't care for filling fat bellies, heading to LA and bashing the gangland boss Laius (Madrid St. Angelo) over the head after a minor dispute on the street.
So that's Daddy dead. Alfaro has already shown us Laius getting rid of his (and the doped-up Jocasta's) baby, right after birth, having decided that he cares not for filial competition. He gets the deadly kind, anyway.
Latino gangland, with its kingpins, parallel city-states and love of myths, turns out to be a very potent setting for a new version of what Aristotle termed the perfect tragedy. Alfaro doesn't entirely have an answer for the plague that Sophocles used to pin the Oedipus paradox to the wall — in the original, Oedipus has to find out who he is to save his people; in this version, all flows more from his arrogance and the manipulations of the nasty Creon (Arturo Soria). That's not as complex. But in every other way, you feel what you usually feel with this play.
And with the Alfaro version, there are value-added components to boot: Alfaro clearly is lamenting the human cost of gang warfare, the way prison simply condemns young offenders to that world for life and, in one powerful and surprising scene showcasing Torres, he unleashes his feelings on what really makes a father in our oft-fatherless world.
"You think a father is made of blood?" Torres' deeply emotional Tiresias says to young Oedipus, who sees only blood ties, except when he does not see them at all. "A father is made of breath — from blowing into your lungs the ideas of life, and gasping in fear at what you'll do with them."
One does a fair amount of gasping in fear at this show, which is a fine thing at a tragedy, especially when leavened, as is the case here, with pity for lost souls buffeted by the preening, violence of a world they did not invent, but in which they must survive. Yew grasps the iconic nature of the story, and also the need to ensure it is specific and intimate, moving his actors quickly and unpretentiously through all corners of this theatrical landscape, and freezing his viewers to their seats with the pain and inevitability of recognition.
When: Through July 29
Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or