THEATER REVIEW: “Oedipus el Rey” at San Diego Rep

I wanted the first, stunning scene of “Oedipus el Rey” to go on much longer. It’s simple – six men ranged around a semi-circular raised set, each in an individual white spotlight – but oh, so effective.

The men are convicts in the Kern County state prison, and while they exercise in the yard, they talk (Greek chorus-style) about stories and fate, and whether we are all doomed to play out our own preordained stories.

They have a terrific one to tell: the ancient tale of Oedipus, born to Theban royalty, whose fate was to kill his father and marry his mother. Hearing this, his father Laius (Leandro Cano) ordered him killed, but instead he was saved, only to accidentally fulfill that horrible destiny many years later.

Playwright Luis Alfaro has moved the story to California, where the action alternates between a Los Angeles barrio, “la casa” and the prison. Oedipus (a terrific Lakin Valdez) has pretty much grown up in prison and thinking his father is the blind Tiresias (Matt Orduña), who saved him and then got himself arrested in order to be with his son.

When Oedipus is released, he heads for L.A. (against Tiresias’ advice), where his life will play out. He wants to become a “mero mero” (big cheese) on the streets of L.A. Will he succeed? He gets off to a bad start, succumbing to a bout of road rage and killing the other motorist.

In L.A., he bumps into a familiar (if not friendly) face: Creon (Jorge Rodriguez), brother of Queen Jocasta (Mónica Sánchez), and asks for a temporary crash pad. Creon (who wants to run the place himself) unenthusiastically offers him a week, tops.

When Oedipus meets the queen, they tangle verbally, but things start moving a little too fast and soon she’s saying things like “You’re a part of me. I don’t know why,” and disrobing. (Note to those offended by extended nudity, though most of it is discreetly shrouded in a sheet: this scene is rather long.)

When they decide to marry and Oedipus is told he has to get permission from a group of healers, he’s really not down with that. He’s from the new generation, the one that doesn’t believe in the old ways.

But he thinks of a way to make this work for him by announcing to these three weirdos (wearing wild-looking masks and calling themselves “esfinges” or sphinxes because they will ask him to solve a riddle) that he’s going to start exacting an operating fee for healing in the barrio.

Now that’s asking for trouble, and Oedipus will get it.

Alfaro has adapted the old myth so well, and the Rep’s Sam Woodhouse directs this piece so expertly that it seems fresh and new again. Everything about this production is right, from Yoon Bae’s terrific set to Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes (especially for Jocasta) to Lonnie Alcaraz’s evocative and expressive lighting. Larry Stein’s sound design (including his own music) is perfect and Daniel Cariño’s projection design tells its own story. Spencer Smith and George Yé do excellent work in choreography and the fight scenes as well.

And the cast! In addition to Valdez, Sánchez’s Jocasta is beautiful, imperial and achingly sad all at once. Leandro Cano’s Laius, king of Thebes (who turns out to be that road rage victim) is autocratic and easy to dislike, but with that prophecy to deal with, it’s not so difficult to understand why.

Rodriguez’s Creon is even easier to dislike, but he’s just trying to defend territory he thinks it his; and Matt Orduna’s Tiresias offers the only true father figure in the bunch.

All these actors play more than one part except Sánchez. Spencer Smith and Dave Rivas play several each.

The Greeks worried about the dictates of the gods. Alfaro seems to be telling us we moderns can be stuck in a socioeconomic groove just as difficult to get out of.

Woodhouse, whose facility in directing updated classics was so well demonstrated in last season’s “El Henry,” does it again, and better than ever. Don’t miss this one.

The details

“Oedipus El Rey” plays through March 29, 2015 at San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown San Diego, California.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2, 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 544-1000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.