February 17, 2011 at 4:00 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Mama mia

‘Oedipus el Rey’
Through March 6
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW

A scene from ‘Oedipus el Rey,’ on the boards now at Woolly Mammoth. (Photo by Stan Barouh; courtesy of Woolly)

There’s a moment in Woolly Mammoth’s never-boring production of “Oedipus el Rey” when the recently widowed Jocasta and the younger title character are heatedly – and nakedly — going at it on the floor of the company’s brightly lit stage and the audience wants to yell “Stop!” Not because we’re prudes or because the pair is bad to look at (they’re not). It’s because we already know something that the characters have yet to discover – they’re mother and son.

Gay playwright Luis Alfaro’s modern take on Sophocles’ classic tragedy puts the focus on the intense romantic relationship between lonely Jocasta (Romi Dias) and her long lost only child Oedipus (Andres Munar). The ill-fated couple’s lengthy, nude sex scene – boldly staged by director Michael John Garcés – is especially intense given that their immediate love and openly displayed passion will ultimately result in further pain for the already damaged pair.

Equally effective, Alfaro sets his version in California’s North Kern State Prison and Pico Union, a rough district in downtown Los Angeles. Surrounded by an informal chorus of hardcore Chicano inmates and (later) gangbangers clad in wife beaters and sagging pants, Oedipus struggles to defy prophesy, but despite all attempts to rise about the gods, he succumbs to his destiny. With its enduring themes of fate, pride and free will, Sophocles’ Greek tragedy works well in the confines of a contemporary prison and the mean streets of the barrio.

Even with the new L.A. setting, all the ancient plot points are there: After learning from local seers that his newborn is destined to be his rival, Laius (David Anzuelo), king of the barrio, instructs crony Tiresias (Gerard Ender) to kill baby Oedipus. Crony spares the child. Years later (after spending many years in reform school and a stint in big house in Alfaro’s account), Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother.

Though unaware of his bloodlines, Oedipus feels entitled to rule. Like other tragic heroes, his hubris is his downfall. When Jocasta queen of the barrio first meets the appealing young man who is in fact her son, she’s impressed and rapidly raises her new lover to royal status. Her brother Creon (a convincing and very fit Jose Joaquin Perez) urges his sister to reconsider, but it’s too late.

Unlike Sophocles’ more honorable Oedipus, Alfaro’s young tragic hero is a straight-up thug operating outside of the law, but at the same time he reeks of innocence like a sort of convict fledgling recently bumped from the prison nest. Munar superbly captures the duality of the role. The remainder of the seven-person cast is similarly committed.

Designer Misha Kachman’s set is appropriately raw, doubling as a prison yard and the barrio streets. Its centerpiece is a massive sliding door book-ended by two iron ladders. Kachman also designed the actors’ outsized black and white, press on tattoos Inspired by gangland designs, the tattoos are purposely not too reality based — that could potentially create problems for the actors with real gangs outside of the theater.

Alfaro knows from what he writes. According to program notes, the playwright is Chicano (or a U.S. citizen of Mexican descent) and was born and raised in downtown L.A. Over the years he’s worked in California’s Juvenile Detention System as a poet and a writer. He adeptly infuses his work with barrio culture like its blend of Catholic and indigenous religious beliefs, and peppers his already authentic, often humorous dialogue with a little Spanglish.

While a lot of Alfaro’s prior plays have dealt with lesbian and gay themes, “Oedipus el Rey” does not, but Woolly’s production nonetheless remains a great opportunity to get (or become further) acquainted with the celebrated playwright’s work.

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