Saturday, April 3, 2010

My Thoughts on "Oedipus El Rey" at the Boston Court Theatre

Hottie Oedipus (Justin Huen) addresses his audience. Photo by Ed Krieger

Tonight, I was privy to see Oedipus El Rey at the Boston Court Theatre in my beloved Pasadena.

I arrived in good time to the theatre and parked in their wonderfully free parking lot behind the building. Thanks to UnBearded Brian, the marketing/@bostoncourt Twitter dude, my ticket was being held at will call under "Elisa Lilylemony," which tickled me to no end. Hence, I was able to go up to the woman behind the counter and say, "I have a ticket reserved under Elisa...Lilylemony." She laughed and found the ticket, then told me they had put my last name on it just to be on the safe side. Hehe.

Executive director Michael Seel was nearby and stuck out his hand for me to shake, telling me that it was good to see me again. This is what truly makes the Boston Court special, is this very sincere and relaxed way about everyone who works there. It doesn't feel hierarchical or that you're cattle being herded in and out of the theatre begrudgingly by the staff, you truly feel like you're sitting in your friend's very beautiful living room, being entertained by these other people they know.

While we were waiting for the theater to open, I chatted briefly with a couple, whom I asked where the best place to sit was. The man, who had been before, simply answered, "Anywhere" with a smile.

Soon, we were allowed into the theatre proper and I hiked down to the second row of the 99-seat stunner, sitting as close to the middle as I could. This turned out to be highly serendipitous, because the woman I sat next to was wonderful company. Connie (accompanied by her husband Bill) received their original subscription to the Boston Court from one of Connie's students as a present several years ago and they've been renewing their membership ever since. It was delightful to hear her wax poetic about a place I am very quickly falling in love with already, almost like a confirmation of its magical quality, and that it didn't just have an effect on me, but everyone who sets foot inside it.

View of the stage from the second row

Set in modern day Los Angeles, Oedipus El Rey is a retelling of the Greek myth of "Oedipus Rex" - Oed. kills his dad, marries his mom, and gets cursed to a life of tragedy. Playwright Luis Alfaro weaves the myth into this wonderfully complex storyline that works so well within its updated context.

The whole cast was exceptionally strong. Sometimes, with an ensemble, you have a few "weak links" in the chain that the others have to carry, but everyone pulled their weight and really made the production sing. Especially strong was Marlene Forte, who played Oedipus' mother/lover Jocasta. It was amazing to see so much power and strength come out of such a tiny woman. And she had to cry on cue not once, but three times, and she did it so naturally, it was incredible. The lead, Justin Huen was amazing and very bold in his acting, without being over the top. I absolutely loved the idea of the inmates making up the Greek chorus who led us along in the storyline. Many times throughout the play, I found myself not thinking that the players were acting, but merely that I was watching a scene unfold somewhere in a distant reality. There was a sort of choreography to everyone's movements that created a "dance" onstage, every actor moving fluidly with the other. This is the mark of good theatre. As Hamlet said, acting is "to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature."

Forbidden fruit. Oedipus (Justin Huen) and Jocasta (Marlene Forte) share a tender moment. Photo by Ed Krieger

The lighting and stage direction for the play were absolutely phenomenal. I don't think I've ever seen such creative use of lighting before. As you can see from my above photo, the stage was split in half, representing both the prison world, and the outside world, separated by bars that would open during crucial parts of the play, a symbolic transfer from one world to the other. It also felt as if prison was hell and death and the outside world represented life. During a very intense scene near the end of the play, the two actors perform in a single shaft of light that comes from the side of the stage. There were these wonderful...I'll call them "soundscapes," that faded in and out of one's consciousness as you watched the play. During the scene with Oedipus first meets Jocasta, we hear birds twittering in the background, but it's so soft and subtle, that you're not even sure you've heard it, until you really concentrate, and then it's gone. These little touches really added to the production as a whole and gave it a more realistic feel.

Another wonderful thing about this production was that they utilized not only the stage, but the full theatre. Actors were constantly running up and down the two side aisles and even along the high catwalk to the right of the stage. Several times during the production, the Greek chorus of inmates would sit at the sides of the theatre, giving the play a very rounded and complete feel, as if we were ensconced in the action.

As we were politely warned beforehand, there was mild nudity in this production during a love scene, but it was neither gratuitous nor unnecessary. It was so beautifully done that it was like watching art in motion, the two bodies entwining in forbidden passion.

Being set in modern times and in prison, all of the male actors were scattered with these incredibly cool, ornate tattoos. Throughout the production, I became more and more curious as to whether they were real, or faux, and if faux, how did they do it? I'm guessing henna or semi-permanent ink that they would "press on" before the show, but some of them were so intricate that I'm still not certain. I'm also curious if each tattoo represented a theme in the play, giving it a more visual (and literal) meaning. I became mildly entranced by a tattoo on Oedipus' left arm that looked uncannily like Cthulhu, Lovecraftian monster of the underworld. But that's just how my strange brain functions. XD

After the show, Connie, her husband, and I sat momentarily, discussing the play, the theatre, and our experiences. It was so lovely to speak with her, I do hope I run into her again at another production.

Tonight, my friends, the Boston Court healed the last wounds that had been festering since last summer's fiasco with another theatre's production that shall remain nameless. The BC is night and day from my previous experiences, and it was almost a sort of catharsis to see a production in such a positive space. As Connie so rightly said before the production started, "The Boston Court staff are so nice, but they're sincerely nice, none of this phony stuff like other places."

I wholeheartedly agree.

Oedipus El Rey, one of the BC's most successful productions, has been extended through April 11th. Click here for tickets and more info

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