The notion of “the Oedipus complex”—a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex—was introduced by Sigmund Freud in his Interpretation of Dreams in 1899. It has been studied, debated, applied, and misapplied in a myriad of contexts ever since. In many ways, this makes Oedipus el Rey the defining work in Woolly’s 2010/11 season of plays entitled “A Striptease of Your Subconscious” (a season that began with Sarah Ruhl’s The Vibrator Play and Greg Moss’s House of Gold). If you want to deal with the mental landscape of human sexuality, ‘ya gotta come face to face with Oedipus!
In Sophocles’ version of the story, the relationship between King Oedipus and his wife (and, unknown to him, mother), Jocasta, has been going on for many years, and they are, in fact, the parents of two children, Antigone and Ismene. But in Oedipus el Rey, Luis Alfaro imagines the beginning of the relationship between Oedipus and Jocasta—so he really makes us wallow in the sexual implications. Over a third of the play is devoted to their meeting, steamy courtship, and decision to get married.
Luis depicts both Oedipus and Jocasta as remarkably feisty characters who find an unexpected bond (despite their different in age) around the psychic wounds they share. Jocasta was forced to give up a child (whom we know to be Oedipus) many years ago, and has been angry and childless ever since. Just before meeting Oedipus, her gang lord husband, Laius, was killed in an automobile incident with an unknown stranger (Oedipus again, of course!). For his part, Oedipus has just been released after several years in prison, where he was taken care of by his father, another prisoner named Tiresias (though we know that Oedipus’s real father is Laius). In and out of juvenile detention centers and prisons his whole life, Oedipus is now burning to make something of himself, to become a king in the complex gang culture of the LA barrio. Jocasta is his first lover, and also his entree into the power-structure of the barrio. But Jocasta’s brother, Creon, is not too happy about their their relationship, to say the least, and builds up a deep resentment toward Oedipus for muscling into his own turf.
I don’t want to give away too much, but I hope you’re starting to get the picture of how thoroughly playwright Luis Alfaro has re-imagined the story of Oedipus. The time structure is completely different, along with the setting, the language, and many of the relationships. Above all, he transforms a somewhat intellectual Greek tragedy about fate and the hubris of a king, into a visceral, very present, and very hot tragedy about the burning ambition of someone who is working his way up from the bottom of the economic ladder with no resources but his personality, his wit, and his fists.
As Alli Houseworth’s marketing materials for the show have announced: “This isn’t your mother’s Oedipus!”
~Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director