'Oedipus el Rey'

Sometimes less is just less, as demonstrated by "Oedipus el Rey."

Sometimes less is just less, as demonstrated by Magic Theater artistic director Loretta Greco’s excessively bare-bones premiere production of “Oedipus el Rey.” Luis Alfaro’s reimagining of the Greek myth in modern Latino organized-crime terms eventually engrosses due to his vivid dialogue and some strong performances. But they must overcome an initially off-putting poor-theater approach that feels affected and derivative rather than organic. Result is a show whose paucity of visual punch diminishes its emotional impact.

Oedipus (Joshua Torrez) is a cocky, heavily tattooed youth who’s spent most of his life in lockup, now leaving behind both prison and Tiresias (Marc David Pinate), the man who raised him. The latter tells Oedipus a parable-like story about a king (Eric Aviles) so fearful of an oracle’s prediction — that he’d be killed by his own son — he ordered a servant to slaughter his newborn child. But the soft-hearted would-be assassin instead fled with the infant, despite being struck blind by the gods for his betrayal.

In Alfaro’s version Oedipus grows up a revolving-door habitue of juvenile, then adult corrective facilities. Out on the streets for the first time as a full-grown man, he gets into a road-rage argument and kills a man en route to Los Angeles. There, he crashes with old acquaintance Creon (Armando Rodriguez), wasting little time taking over both the latter’s gangland business and the affections of his older, recently widowed sister Jocasta (Romi Dias). Little does Oedipus realize her late husband is the man he had killed — or that she’s his own mother.

Staged on a plain plywood floor rectangle with few props and no backdrop apart from lighting designer Sarah Sidman’s rows of headlights, “Rey” makes a strained first impression. The incantatory chants of a four-man chorus (Pinate, Aviles, Rodriguez, Carlos

Aguirre) are Alfaro’s most pretentious passages, at least until they develop some humor later on. Greco uses mime and pop songs sung (mostly poorly) a capella as color, but these devices play like uninspired filler. When Oedipus repeatedly dashes back and forth in the smallish playspace, it signifies nothing beyond workshop actor business.

But the writing (which mixes English and scattered Spanish phrases) is both lush and sharp in dialogue scenes, particularly those between unknowingly against-nature lovers Oedipus and Jocasta. Torrez and Dias gamely endure a long sequence of naked entanglings. Play and staging gain in strength as the short evening proceed, though again, greater attention to the visuals could have amplified the horror in our hero’s climactic revelation of patricide and incest. As is, Torrez’s hithero potently arrogant, fate-tempting (“I’m more powerful than God”) Oedipus speeds through his collapse and punitive self- mutilation.

Among other thesps — all cast in multiple roles — Dias makes the most of Jocasta’s unexpected reawakening of passion, while Rodriguez is touching as her equally concerned and jealous brother. For lack of other significant input, primary design impacts are made by Sidman’s lighting (though it’s held in check for too long) and Jake Rodriguez’s busy sound design.

Oedipus el Rey

Magic Theater, San Francisco; 154 seats; $55 top

Production

A Magic Theater presentation of a play in one act by Luis Alfaro. Directed by Loretta Greco.

Creative

Set, Erik Flatmo; costumes, Alex Jaeger; lighting, Sarah Sidman; sound, Jake Rodriguez; fight direction, Dave Meier; props, tattoo design, Jacquelyn Scott; dramaturg, Jane Ann Crum; production stage manager, Megan Q. Sada. Opened Jan. 3, 2010. Reviewed Jan. 5. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

With: Carlos Aguirre, Eric Aviles, Romi Dias, Marc David Pinate, Armando Rodriguez, Joshua Torrez.
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