Directed by Chay Yew
Playing at Victory Gardens Theater
A modern-day Medea from Mexico in a revelatory retelling…
Even as far back as Euripides, the figure of Medea was portrayed as something of a mojada—a derogatory term for ‘wetback.’ Beginning in the late fifth century, for instance, shortly after Euripides’s own stage version of the myth, artists began to accentuate Medea’s role as a foreigner living within Greek society, dressing her in exotic oriental garb rather than the clothing of a traditional Greek woman. The perpetual ‘stranger in a strange land,’ the myth of Medea—scorned and infanticidal—has ever since lent itself to probing considerations of cultural assimilation, gender inequity, and the darker aspects of romantic love.
That these issues remain as urgent today as they did in fifth century Athens is made readily apparent by playwright Luis Alfaro’s own arresting adaptation of the Medea legend, Mojada, is being given its world premiere at Victory Gardens under the superb direction of Artistic Director Chay Yew. Set in the present-day Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, Alfaro’s Medea recasts the Colchian witch of yesteryear into a hapless seamstress (played by Sandra Delgado), recently emigrated from her native Mexico.
Unable to speak the language and unwilling to venture any further than her own meager backyard, Alfaro’s Medea finds herself entirely dependent on her husband Jason (Juan Francisco Villa). But Jason’s ambitious nature, his love of money, and an eagerness to assimilate into the American way of life soon alienates him from the woman who so earnestly loves him.
Not that Medea is entirely alone. She is dutifully accompanied by Tito (played in a hilariously scene-stealing performance by Socorro Santiago), a sage old healer who carried their village’s native customs on her back across the Arizona desert when Jason, Medea and their son Acan (Dylan M. Lainez) ultimately decided to make the migration north. The story of their agonizing journey—retold in choral flashback by Tito—constitutes a sizable portion of Mojada, but it so exhaustively grounds the play’s emotional stakes that one can hardly imagine the play working without it.
Forced to ride in the back of a muggy van with little air, raped and nearly murdered by a rogue band of Mexican soldiers, and then led aimlessly through the arid desert, Medea’s journey north is testimony to her love for Jason. So when she realizes that her husband may have eyes for Armida (Sandra Marquez)—the Ann Taylor-wearing and fully ‘Americanized’ rich proprietor of their Pilsen apartment—we instantly understand the full breadth and extent of Jason’s immense betrayal.
And that’s part of what makes Mojada such a compelling work. Yes, Alfaro’s play definitely proceeds with all the grandiose ritualism of myth, but at the same time, it never uses that as an excuse to forgo a heartfelt emotional realism. If Mojada succeeds in achieving the operatic registers of legend (and I believe it does), then it does so only because its characters are so exceptionally well-grounded in the emotional responses of everyday people.
Thankfully, Sandra Delgado’s performance as Medea is meticulously realized, believably building from an impossibly meek and mild wife to a fierce sorceress. To her credit, it’s an incredibly broad emotional arc to cover in just a little over two hours. But Delgado takes the challenge seriously, and the metamorphosis is achieved so seamlessly that it’s likely to give an audience chills to watch.
Still, although Mojada is emotionally compelling in all the really important places, there’s still a little room to develop. For instance, the character of Armida—who evicts Medea in order to steal her husband and child—feels less plausible. Vain, unapologetically blunt, and wholly unsympathetic, Armida’s character might suit less nuanced melodramas, but her overt nastiness doesn’t quit gel with Mojada’s otherwise carefully constructed emotional realities. Even Jason, at least as played by the adept Juan Francisco Villa, remains plausibly self-deluded regarding his own culpability. I imagine Armida is meant to be emblematic of the cutthroat ethos of the American capitalism, but at this juncture, she comes across more as a two-dimensional parody of it.
Nevertheless, Luis Alfaro—whose Oedipus el Rey and Electricidad are also adaptations of classical plays, oriented toward the contemporary Latino experience—again demonstrates a keen ability to excavate the archetypal realities underlying modern-day experiences. For as alarmingly aware as Mojada is of the day-to-day realities of being a Mexican immigrant in today’s America, its use of mythic forms serves to remind us in revelatory ways that perhaps we have been here before. And that in order to look forward, it may help also to look back.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, July 22nd, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.
Mojada runs until August 11th, 2013. Victory Gardens is located at 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. For tickets call (773) 871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/mojada/5982/.