‘Oedipus el Rey’ Theater Review: What Happens When Sophocles Takes His Viagra

Incest is naked and center stage in Luis Alfaro’s riveting new adaptation of the Greek tragedy

Luis Alfaro takes “Oedipus Rex” and moves it up a few millennia to the streets of present-day Los Angeles. He calls his new adaptation “Oedipus el Rey,” but a more apt title would be “Oedipus Sex.”

Let’s get right to what most theatergoers will be talking about the minute they walk out of Off Broadway’s Public Theater, where “Oedipus el Rey” opened Tuesday: “Is that possibly the hottest, longest nude sex scene you’ve ever seen on stage anywhere?”

With “Hair” back in 1968, the Public presented the first nude scene on Broadway. Now, in association with the Sol Project, the Public give us what might be one of the longest nude scenes on stage between two actors. Certainly, it is one of the most movingly crafted and performed.

In the Sophocles tragedy, Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta, have married when the play begins. Plot-wise, Alfaro starts with the backstory of that union. Oedipus, a.k.a. Patas Malas (Juan Castano), is released from prison after having spent much of his youth there. He can’t get a job, old temptations resurface and road rage leads him to kill a man who happens to be his father.

Chay Yew doesn’t so much direct as choreograph this very fast trajectory from prison to freedom to entrapment, spreading it across a vast panoramic canvas, by scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, that recalls the magic realism of Frida Kahlo if the atheist artist had been into glorifying Roman Catholic icons.

The Virgin Mary and others hover over this Oedipus, and Patas Malas finds himself at odds with that Mexican-Christian culture, trapped between two prisons: the tradition-bound L.A. barrio and the one where he has spent most of his life. He knows the rules of the latter, he doesn’t know much about the former.

The Playbill for “Oedipus el Rey” features one of the strangest credits ever. It lists Unkledave’s Fight-House as the “fight and intimacy director.” Regarding the fights, there are many, and each is bloody, brutal, and beautiful.

Then there’s the lovemaking between Castano and his Jocasta, Sandra Delgado. Their characters meet in downtown L.A., and don’t hit it off well on the subject of God and what it means to be a Mexican immigrant. She’s a seasoned traditionalist, he isn’t, and Alfaro masterfully takes the Jocasta character from adversary to teacher to lover, all the while remaining very much the mother without her knowing it. Jocasta is the widow who’s not all that grieving; Oedipus is the ex-con who’s not all that tough. Their marriage begins much better than her previous one ended.

Anyone who knows Sophocles might expect the mother-son dynamic to be blurred here in the lovers’ first long, extended encounter. Under Yew’s direction, Alfaro and his actors  take the opposite route to the characters’ expected tragic ends. Jocasta becomes more maternal as her attraction grows. Oedipus reveals his virginity, having been incarcerated in his post-adolescence, and there’s never any doubt in their lovemaking who’s teaching whom.

Delgado’s Jocasta grows wiser, more grounded as Castano’s Oedipus indulges in a prideful, almost childish exercise in rebellion that leads to deposing his brother-in-law and uncle, Creon (Joel Perez, giving a quirky performance that delivers). There are echoes of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana in what Patas Malas becomes. The difference is, Castano never resorts to piles of cocaine or any other dubiously theatrical effects.

One of the real pleasures of going to a lot of theater (sometimes, too much) is to see an actor’s development. Earlier this year, Castano performed in Bruce Norris’ “A Parallelogram,” in which he played a white woman’s ideal of what a Latino gardener-turned-lover should be. With “Oedipus el Rey,” he puts aside the gloss of fantasy to explore with total command the flesh and blood of an urban misfit.