Culture Watch: Oedipus El Rey

Is fate just another word for the prison-industrial complex?

That’s where playright Luis Alfaro and the Magic Theater are pushing us in Oedipus El Rey, now revived at the Magic’s Fort Mason Theater for its 10 year anniversary.

Original director Loretta Greco puts the stark and propulsive “Oedipus in the barrio” play through its paces in a brisk hour and forty minute production that will run through June 23rd.

Alfaro’s Oedipus, fated to kill his father and marry his mother, is a child raised in prison by foster dad Tiresias, who upon his release from incarceration rushes energetically into his hellish fate. Dispensing with his unknown abusive father in a bit of road rage in Bakersfield, the youth meets his match in mom Jocasta, who finds in the young man a balm for a lifetime of pain.

For a while.

Since we all know the story, Alfaro spends the play’s length in a reworking of the Greek tragedy tropes and spins Sophoclean devices, including the axiomatic sphinx. This is most compelling in the play’s “chorus”, a quartet that watches the play for and with us, filled with witty asides, forebodings, slips into and out of supporting characters (the entire cast is Oedipus, Jocasta and the chorus), and essentially creates the world of the prison and the barrio out of whole cloth in the almost-bare set. They notch the fourth-wall effect by dragging members of the audience out of their seats to dance at the incestuous wedding.

In the end, what we have is the constraint of a fate set by gods that is fixed and unchangeable, and the constraint of systemic inequity, both a kind of machine boxing us in despite our frantic and doomed efforts to shape our own destiny.

In Sophocles, ” The Gods” is shorthand for the vagaries of a cruel universe that can neither be explained nor escaped. In Oedipus El Rey, the four posts of the prison wall and the barrio on the other side of them is just as inescapable.

Perhaps if we considered black and brown people ending up in the prison pipeline to be as unspeakable as killing your father and marrying your mother, the road out of the machine might start to become visible.

Catch it while you can.

Magic Theater 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, 3rd Floor, San Francisco 94123.