A Barrio Oedipus
February 4, 2010
Do classic plays always lend themselves to adaptation into different cultural idioms? What makes a certain story resonate in particular with a particular setting? Luis Alfaro's Oedipus el Rey, currently receiving its world premiere production at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in a production directed by Loretta Greco, made me ponder these questions.
After about ten minutes of sitting their with a slightly furrowed brow as I watched a bunch of tough-looking guys doing the cliched prison inmate posturing thing, I found myself completely immersed in Alfaro's transposition of the great Sophoclean tragedy Oedipus Rex into a contemporary Latino barrio landscape. The ensemble cast moved with lightness around the bare stage. They acted the scenes like they meant them without resorting to histrionics more than on a couple of occasions. The text snapped along with its musical combination of English and Spanish (though I could have done with a little less of the "madre dios"-style sturm-and-drang exclamations.) The emptiness of the set reflected the blindness of Tiresias and eventually Oedipus himself, while the bold use of naked lightbulbs throughout the taut one and a half hour long, intermissionless drama suggested the light within. All in all I think The Magic gives us a well-thought-out production of a compellingly adapted narrative.
Yet there's nothing intrinsic about the Oedipus story that lends itself to adaptation into the Latin idiom really. To say that "the narrative works because Latino culture is passionate and tragic and therefore lends itself to this kind of overwrought soap opera of a story" is to make a superficial generalization. And yet the translation succeeds with the same amount of drive and vigor as Sondheim-Laurents-Bernstein's adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet to 1950s barrio New York.
In less capable hands, I suppose Oedipus el Rey would probably make me cringe. The commitment and talent of the production team is responsible for the work's ability to communicate. I don't suppose the play would stand on its own as powerfully as something like Westside Story,though. The barrio does not always great theatre make. Campo Santo's adaptation of Hamletinto a contemporary barrio setting in Oakland a few years ago at Intersection for the Arts left me completely cold. Part of the reason for this was that the connection between the story and the setting seemed completely arbitrary to me, perhaps because the staging didn't rise beyond cliche.