The actors’ ink in DTC’s ‘Oedipus el Rey’ is fake (except what isn’t)
If you’ve seen Dallas Theater Center’s edgy, raw production Oedipus el Rey — and if you haven’t, you definitely should (it runs ’til March 2) — you may have wondered, as I briefly did, whether any (all?) of the many prison tattoos sported by the mostly male cast were real.
“Though I love the idea of conducting auditions for Oedipus by asking each actor to show me their tattoos, and then cast them accordingly, nonetheless, the vast majority were created and designed for the production,” jokes Kevin Moriarty, the DTC’s artistic director and the director of this production.
A modern drama that adapts Sophocles’ iconic ancient Greek play and moves it to the present-day barrios of Southern California — where a gang led by Creon (David Lugo) is brought down when his biological son Oedipus (Philippe Bowgen) kills him according to prophecy, then marries his own mother Jocasta (Sabina Zuniga Varela) before the tragedy of his fate reveals itself — is a bloody, violent expiation of criminal recidivism and the cultural conditions that control us — gains much of its power from the muscled men whose tattoos tell as much about their story as words do.
Jen Ables, DTC’s costume shop manager and the costume designer on the show, was tasked with designing the tattoos, sometimes in conjunction with the cast (see sidebar, Page 35). Her first step was to research different ways to apply tattoos.
“We worked with outside support on Fly [at DTC] last season, and figured it out for ourselves this time,” Ables says. “We knew there would be a lot of tattoos, they would get blood on them, and there was an Actors Equity rule that it could not take more than half an hour [to apply them].” She ended up with a cross-section of alcohol- and water-based temporary tattoos from two suppliers — some customized, some that amounted to “clip art.”
From there, she tailored each design to suit the characters.
“I told the actors, if you get any ideas from the text, tell me,” she says. In the case of Oedipus, Bowgen observed that he is still a comparative innocent when the play begins, so he doesn’t have much ink. His tattoos, therefore, had to be minimal but striking.
Ables elected to give him a spider-web on the neck, a spider on the wrist and a portrait of Oedipus’ mother on his bicep — actually the face of DTC company member Christina Vela.
He also gets a teardrop near the eye. Nicole Alvarez, a hair and makeup technician, applies Bowgen’s tats before most performances, which includes the alcohol and water types, as well as a tattoo pen for filling in gaps and drawing on the tear.
But keep looking. Some of the actors did have their own real tattoos before rehearsals started. Ables says Varela, the lone woman, has the most real ones, and Lugo sports off one on his arm — an unthreatening chicken, which, he jokes, could be made to look like an aggressive cockfighter if he took a mind to it. And Oedipus himself? Yep.
Bowgen actually got his own real tattoo “after a drunken night when I was 18,” as he puts it. Don’t see it? It’s on his upper thigh, he says. Whether you can see it during his nude scene may depend on your seats.
Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora St. Through March 2. DallasTheaterCenter.org.
ANATOMY OF A PRISON TATTOO (THEATRICAL VERSION)
Rodney Garza, who plays both Tieresia and Coro in DTC’s Oedipus el Rey, doesn’t have any real tattoos himself, but was deeply involved in mapping out some for his characters. The one he was most proud of? A line in the text where someone said they’d seen his character kill a man with acid inspired the chest tattoo he sports in the show: A skull and crossbones with the addition of the chemical formula for sulfuric acid. Unlike most of the cast members in the show, Garza applies this one himself, which he walked us through.
Next, Garza preps his chest (above) by placing the decal over a dry surface. He then slowly moistens the back of the paper with water, making sure every corner is wet. Then comes the technical part: Removing the paper backing. He tried to pull it off in one clean sweep (below), though the process involves continually checking to make sure the temp tat has adhered to his skin and is still moist. He will rewet it if he has to.
Garza starts (Top Photo) with a clean slate: He swabs 99 percent alcohol solution on his chest to remove the remnants of the old tattoo (like the other cast members, he replaces his tats every few days as they begin to wear off or become cracked, destroying the illusion of ink and skin.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 14, 2014.