Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

King for a Day

March 16, 2010

Justin Huen (standing) and Leandro Cano in Oedipus el Rey
Photo: Boston Court Theater 2010

On Sunday I went over to the Theater at Boston Court in Pasadena to see the local premiere of Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey. Sadly there are fewer theater options in Pasadena these days following the recent demise of the Pasadena Playhouse. And after entering the packed lobby at Boston Court on a Sunday afternoon, it was tempting to contrast the two organizations and what factors, including what has been appearing on their stages in recent years, that may or may not have led to these different fates.

Boston Court is a much smaller theater, despite its posh digs, so it may not be as beholden to presenting as broadly popular fare in order to fill those seats. But the differences in programming are still a stark contrast. The Pasadena Playhouse closed following a revival of Camelot and it’s schedule has been packed in recent years with other eagerly audience-pleasing revivals. There have been new works as well, including musical treatments of Ray Charles’ life story and the film Sister Act. Meanwhile, Boston Court is presenting a 2010 season entirely of world premieres. (Admittedly two of those plays, including Oedipus el Rey, have "rolling premieres where they are having a few debuts in rapid succession in different cities around the nation.) New work has always been a big part of the diet at Boston Court mixed in with a good number of unorthodox takes on classics. They’ve had musicals as well, including an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull and a comic-book style fantasy from composer Eric Whitacre to name a few. And while there are certainly many more factors involved in a theater company’s success besides programming, looking at the content of recent seasons one has to wonder – what, in fact, do today's audiences want to see?

I think Boston Court has been, and continues to be on the right track. The all premiere season is a great and challenging idea in times that would encourage many organizations to go into retreat. The first offering in this premiere series is Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus el Rey, a re-envisioning of Sophocles’ drama in a contemporary L.A. barrio. This is not a new tactic for Alfaro who tread pretty much the same course with Electricidad, which had a local premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in 2005. This time around we have Oedipus released from North Kern State Prison where he has been mentored by a blind Tiresias. Upon release from prison, Oedipus commits the murder which will shape his destiny on the streets of L.A. and then moves into a neighborhood where he will soon be working all of the angles.

Alfaro’s reworking of the plot into modern day elements works well for the most part, including a chorus of fellow felons who take on the roles of most of the minor characters at different points. And while the themes of fate and questioning the gods are still central to the adaptation, Alfaro appears to be unable to avoid filling the story with oodles of psychological characterizations and interpersonal conflicts that were not usually concerns of the Greeks. A lot of time is spent on explaining the romance that develops between Oedipus and Jocasta and Oedipus’ feelings toward Tiresias following his momentous revelations. And while all of this may make the story more acceptable to a modern audience, it also seems to weigh things down in a play that is much more about the folly in questioning one’s destiny. But some wounds are hard to avoid opening when they are staring you in the face, and Alfaro’s Oedipus goes for every one no matter how much they bring the action of the play to a dead stop.

Despite this, there’s a lot right about this show. It certainly looks good and is well lit. The performances are all strong especially Justin Huen as an unusually young and virile Oedipus. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps a good balance between the wit and tragedy in Alfaro's adaptation. And while I never felt shocked by the well worn events of the story, I did admire the craft behind it. The play runs for two more weeks here in L.A. before moving on to Washington DC.

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