A complex, modern ‘Oedipus’ 

It’s hard to imagine that Sophocles’ tragedy “Oedipus Rex” was any more thrilling to ancient Greek audiences than this modern Mexican-American remake by playwright Luis Alfaro presented by Magic Theatre.

Set in a prison yard, on a stretch of California highway and in a barrio where traditional religious beliefs reign supreme, the compact drama “Oedipus el Rey” includes all the requisite characters and an ever-morphing chorus (coro) that pulls the story together.

Alfaro weaves together contemporary, quasi-idiomatic speech with heightened, poetic language, and fits the action seamlessly into the proscribed Greek-tragedy structure.

Thus the coro, whose members also play assorted roles (key figures, barrio gossips, inmates, a “parliament of owls,” healers and shamans), can, for example, croon “In the Still of the Night,” and Oedipus can confess he robbed a Costco, and it all feels like a natural part of the enlarged, mythical world of the play.

Just as Sophocles did centuries ago, so too does Alfaro draw us into the inexorable march of the characters’ fate.

Alfaro’s congenitally cursed young Oedipus, who believes the blind seer Teresias is his father, is released from prison and embarks upon his anti-hero’s journey.

Hubris-driven — a tragic flaw that helps seal his fate — he wants nothing less than to be king of the barrio. Along the highway, in a road rage incident, he kills his true father, King Laius, and ends up unknowingly marrying his own mother, Jocasta, the king’s widow.

The play begins in violence — one inmate viciously kicking another— and ends, just before the choral denouement, in bloody eye-gouging and suicide. No surprises, except perhaps the fact that this version is so entirely riveting.

Director Loretta Greco’s assured world-premiere production excels on almost all counts.

The Magic Theatre’s bare stage opens wide to create a long, rectangular playing area (Erik Flatmo’s design) of which every inch is dramatically utilized.

The powerful chorus — Carlos Aguirre, Marc David Pinate, Eric Avilés and Armando Rodriquez, who also ace their individual roles — works in perfect synchrony, from expressive, choreographed movements down to tightly interwoven fragments of text.

As the bereft Jocasta, Romi Dias offers such an emotionally full, varied portrayal that it almost doesn’t matter that she’s too young-looking to be convincing as the mother of Joshua Torrez’s hunky Oedipus — but because of that, her relationship with him fails to effectively portend the danger ahead.

Torrez is in most ways a wonderful Oedipus: graceful as a panther, exploding with the pent-up energy of a man incarcerated most of his life, a face that beautifully registers both innocence and ferocity. A long and sensual central scene between him and the gradually melting Jocasta is electrifying.

But young Torrez does not yet have the chops to finesse Oedipus’ climactic anagnorisis — that aha! moment when he realizes that despite his belief in individual choice, he’s inadvertently met his prophesied destiny. And so we are deprived of that essential catharsis of pity and fear. That may sound like a deal-breaker, but it’s not.

This production does the venerable Magic proud.

Oedipus el Rey

Presented by Magic Theatre

Where: Building D, Fort Mason, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays; 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Feb. 28
Tickets: $20 to $45
Contact: (415) 441-8822 or www.magictheatre.org

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Staff Report

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