Oedipus El Rey and The 7-Shot Symphony

Headed for a fall: Ricardo Vázquez as Oedipus
Mark Norberg

"We're old-school," Creon tells Oedipus midway through Oedipus El Rey, describing the community's adherence to the ancient ways. It's a playful moment that underlines the odd collision of cultures at the center of Luis Alfaro's merging of the ancient Greek myth and modern-day Latino culture. In this case, this "old school" really reaches back all the way to the ancient Greeks, with oracles, visions, and sacrifices to God.

It could be a recipe for disaster, but Alfaro melds the modern barrio and the ancient Greek story into a heady and often thought-provoking tale. The combined talents of Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea World Theater, in turn, bring it to full, emotional life with real transgressive passion and a powerful, crushing end.

In Alfaro's vision, Oedipus is the cursed son whose hubris brings about his downfall. After his abandonment, Oedipus is raised by his surrogate father, Tiresias, who even follows his troubled "son" to jail to continue his education. While a chorus of inmates tells us the back-story, Oedipus (Ricardo Vazquez) constantly circles the stage, endlessly exercising and dreaming of getting to the outside.

When his parole comes, he starts his fateful journey, killing his true father in a bit of road rage and then ending up at the home of his now-widowed mother, Jocasta, and her brother, Creon. As the passion between mother and son grows, so does Oedipus' confidence. He begins to take over the family's protection racket and—in a moment sure to anger the lords above—extends that to the healers and oracles of the community.

At his core, Oedipus accepts no higher power than himself (sounds like some legit businessmen now serving long stretches in prison) and rails constantly against God, at one point rejecting the Bible by tearing it apart at the center of the stage.

Everyone knows it won't end well, but Alfaro takes on a slightly different journey than Sophocles. In part, this comes from the onstage passion between Oedipus and Jocasta (Adlyn Carreras). The two are often in each other's grip throughout the play, even to the bitter end. Vazquez and Carreras have terrific chemistry onstage, as his outsized passions and her longstanding bitterness are tempered by each other's presence.

Vazquez gives a strong performance throughout, showing us a character whose drive and ambition will be his downfall. His confidence never wavers until the very end, when the actor brings all of his character's transgressions into a few brokenhearted words. Also excellent are Pedro Bayon as Creon and Carlyle Brown as blind Tiresias.

Director Dipankar Mukerjee gives the piece a rock-solid foundation and does inventive staging with the vast Lab Theatre, playing scenes on both stairwells, giving some of the scenes more of an epic sweep. (The huge space at times swallows some of the lines, but the action is usually very clear.) Oedipus El Rey shows us just how insightful the Greeks were into human nature, even if we aren't following the old ways anymore.

There must be something in the air. The 7-Shot Symphony, the latest Live Action Set piece, also recasts ancient stories in a new context. Here, legends from several cultures are tied together and then transported to the Old West. So the frontier towns are policed by Sheriff Odin Greybeard, they're ruled over by Hades (the owner of the Underworld Saloon), and Orpheus loses his mail-order bride because of a bad debt.

The stories make a delightful playground for the company's actors, who mix their usual physical flair with some good old-fashioned, round-the-campfire storytelling. There are few props and no sets, other than the performers, who transform from characters to a forest to the windswept desert plain in moments. They're aided by local band Tree Party, who provide the country-by-way-of-Ennio Morricone music to which the action plays out.

The story of Orpheus, who follows his bride-to-be to the Underworld and loses her at the last possible moment, is the most affecting one, fueled by Joey Ford's humble and sweet but driven performance. Mark Benzel gives a completely different turn as spider trickster Anansi, who manages to get the best of all around him using only his wits.

The show would be entertaining enough with just a string of well-presented stories, but writers Matt Spring and Ryan Underbakke (who also directed) not only manage to tie the stories together but do it by telling them in sequence. Little moments from the early part of the show become much larger as it goes on, as the reasons for the different actions and reactions become clear. And it's hard not to love a shoot-'em-up Western that uses finger guns.

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