Like many other savvy theatergoers in the city, I was breathlessly anticipating Chay Yew’s first season as Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater, which despite being one of the best-funded theater companies in the city and winner of a Regional Tony Award, was also known for years as one of the most conservative and most risk-averse, with an audience demographic that looked and behaved like a Florida retirement community. Yew was going to re-invigorate a theater that audience members like me had avoided because, frankly, the plays were boring and irrelevant, but which its core audience didn’t seem to mind. And like the good theater aficionado that I am, supporter of change and bold artistic visions, I bought tickets for all four shows of the season, then had mixed feelings about the first three: Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, despite its potentially provocative subject matter felt more of the same old Victory Gardens; the Universes’ Ameriville was spirited and contemporary, but exhaustingly appealed to much of the same liberal white guilt agenda that we see over and over again in Bill Maher’s show or MSNBC; and Jackie Sibblie Drury’s world premiere We are Proud to Present a Presentation… had a pretentiously long title, a somewhat contrived premise, and despite intriguing writing in parts, a sense of needing two more drafts before it could be called a final version. But with the final play, Yew’s production of Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, a transposition of the Oedipus Greek tragedy to the gangs of South Central LA that is smoldering, courageous, urgent, one of the best plays to literally hit the Chicago stage this year with a monster firecracker bang, this first season from Victory Garden’s new AD has fulfilled all the admittedly staggering audience expectations. I, for one, can’t wait for next season!
Alfaro keeps the basic premise of the very familiar Greek play intact: a young man unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother. When he finds out what he has done, he asks his mother to gouge his eyes out. But this Oedipus is a cocky gang-banger who has been in and out of prison all his life; this Jocasta is a lonely, tattooed immigrant queen who is both hard-scrabble and emotionally-starved; this Laius is the king of a sizable criminal kingdom in LA and across the border. The outsized themes of the Greek play are all there: fatalism and superstition, patricide and incest, immoveable pride, and Alfaro does not downplay them. But more brilliantly, and what makes this play so important, is that he successfully overlays themes from the contemporary Chicano gang milieu such as the desperate drive for acceptance and power among immigrant groups and the inculcation of social expectations and definitions of machismo among young Hispanic men, that makes Oedipus el Rey feel like not a thousand-year old play far removed from our experiences, but rather dramatic work that is shaped by the very urgent concerns of today. And although the play is set in Los Angeles, the impact of the themes are universal and particularly relevant to a Chicago where homicides are up 38% from 2011, most of them attributable to gang activity.
Alfaro has met a perfect directorial interpreter for his ambitious play in Yew. Yew’s stage images are astounding: some ferociously feral, such as the first scene when the chorus and Oedipus deliver their dialogue behind prison bars; some hauntingly stylized, such as Oedipus’ encounter with the witch doctors of the Mexican community. The prolific and hyper-creative Kevin Depinet (who wowed me with his The Iceman Cometh design recently) helps Yew immensely by creating a backdrop that recalls Mexican murals. But what I admired most in Yew’s direction is his unstinting devotion to immersing the audiences into the action of the play, even if it becomes uncomfortable for us. Most overtly, he has some of the speeches delivered from the aisles and the back of the theater; more subtly, he stages a lengthy, fully-nude lovemaking scene between Oedipus and Jocasta on a revolving turntable which basically doesn’t hide anything, and which makes us audience members complicit in both their happiness and their eventual horror and guilt. It is a brazen, genius piece of staging that I’m hard to think of anyone else replicating in Chicago soon.
Towering performances abound: Adam Poss as Oedipus is breathtaking to watch – arrogant and seemingly-ruthless on the surface, he still very clearly communicates Oedipus’ vulnerabilities and delusions; Charin Alvarez as Jocasta is his match, brittle and mercurial, but believable that, in her desolation, she can be seduced by the almost child-like love and admiration from a much younger man. Eddie Torres as Tiresius, Oedipus’ adopted father and Laius’ servant who refused to kill the baby when ordered, is luminous and haunted in his love and duplicity for his adopted son. The rest of the ensemble cast is exceptional. With Chay Yew’s staging of Oedipus el Rey, Victory Gardens has finally, for me, become one of the most vital artistic organizations in the city.
Run to Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, to catch the play of the year. Oedipus el Rey is playing only until July 29.
Tags: Victory Gardens Theater