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REVIEW: With ‘Oedipus el Rey,’ Selma Arts Center offers a vivid Chicano update of a classic Greek play

You wouldn’t want to be the father of Oedipus.

Sure, in the prime of life, Oedipus’ father he should be resting easy. Decades before, he arranged to have his newborn son killed, thus quashing any chance of the famed classic-Greek-play prophecy coming true. (You remember the chilling prediction: Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother.) Yet if you’re Laius, the world’s baddest dad, you know deep down that you didn’t have the guts to kill your son with your own hands when you had the chance. By delegating the task, Laius relinquished absolute certainty of his safety.

Pictured above: Ellie West is Jocasta, who doesn’t realize that Oedipus (Mason T. Beltran) is her son. Photo: Selma Arts Center

This tempting of fate – this toying with the edicts of the gods – is a main reason that Sophocles’ original “Oedipus Rex,” one of the oldest surviving plays in existence, retains such potency. Free will is but an illusion. Your life is on a track, unstoppable and preordained. Even the gods can’t help you now.

In Luis Alfaro’s melancholy and powerful “Oedipus el Rey,” which updates the original “Oedipus” story to contemporary Southern California Chicano cholo culture, this inevitability weighs heavily on the subject matter. As realized in a briskly staged and atmospheric Selma Arts Center production, (now in its closing weekend), the life-on-a-track theme can’t be avoided.

“You’re a pain in the ass, you know that?” a heavily pregnant Jocasta (Ellie West, in a severe and effective performance) says to Oedipus in the womb.

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If she only knew.

Mason T. Beltran is a charged and volatile Oedipus. The character is tragically flawed, and not just in the classical sense; Beltran’s Oedipus is brusque and sometimes downright surly. After his release from prison, he soon realizes just how “inevitable” his life has become. As a former inmate, his opportunities for gainful employment are severely restricted.

Director Rodolfo Robles Cruz finds a melancholy menace in Alfaro’s often abrupt and bloody script. I was taken with how smoothly the narrative intertwines with the Oedipus story. (After the son beds and weds mom, for example, he becomes “king” of the family business, a gang-run territory in East Los Angeles, not a monarch of a nation-state.) Yet Alfaro’s narrative doesn’t seem contorted or forced when incorporating the Greek-play narrative elements.

The “coro,” or Greek chorus, is an indispensable part of the production. Thomas Estrada Jr., Jennifer Rodriguez and Carlos O. Sanchez are the primary members of the chorus, though all the cast members except Jocasta pick up duties on the side. Cruz deftly stages this often acidic commentary as we follow Oedipus’ journey, starting from life inside a Kern County penitentiary, where he’s been imprisoned along with his adoptive father, Tiresias (Agustin Chapa, resolute and at times so emotionally brittle that he could break, in a performance that just might stand out over all the others).

Despite the callousness of Oedipus, he discovers that the calmness of Jocasta, by now a widow after the death of Laius (played by Juan Luis Guzman, in a scathingly impactful, beautifully brutal performance), quiets his rage. By this point Oedipus has accepted that his inevitability – a life of crime – is as set in stone as the proclamation of a god on Olympus.

Is there a chance for Alfaro’s Oedipus to break free from his destiny? Raised in an economically challenging environment, subjected to systemic racism and then vacuumed up by the prison-industrial complex, his prospects aren’t good. This is the “inevitability” he faces.

At the same time, Alfaro makes the update extremely specific to a particular subset of the Latino culture. So does the production in terms of accents, costumes and the aesthetic, all of which heavily resonate in a world of East L.A. Does that mean the themes of “Oedipus el Rey” can apply as equally to a Latina Clovis soccer mom as it can to the world of Jocasta? I’d say there’s room for debate.

Time and again, Cruz and his creative team (particularly Sunny DeCastro’s lights, Kimmy Kaur’s sound and Claudio Laso’s fight choreography) paint vivid visual and emotional moments for the audience: a stirring goodbye hug between Oedipus and Laius; a fiery denunciation of the gods (“There is no heaven,” Oedipus proclaims, “just chunky blue sky”); and a slow-burn seduction and love scene that is intense, passionate and chilling in its utter ickiness. And, of course, the moment that no doubt seared audiences the first time it was delivered nearly 2,500 years ago, and still does today, when Oedipus utters those frightful, just-realized words:

“I killed my father.”

Indeed, I was seated front and center, directly in front of the stage, and thus was only 8 feet or so away from the murder scene when it took place in the first act. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to let you know that both ancient prophecies come true.) The staging in the final seconds is impeccable: Oedipus towering above ready to strike the fatal blow, his father on the ground looking up, as if they are male animals in the wild battling for genetic supremacy.

At the last moment, Laius grasps the identity of his opponent. The gods – and the odds – aren’t always on your side.


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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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