Mojada Review: The Medea Story as Tragedy of the Undocumented Immigrant

Most everybody knows that Medea kills her children to take revenge on their two-timing father Jason. But “Mojada,” playwright Luis Alfaro’s modern-day adaptation at the Public Theater, zeroes in on a little-noted fact about the character – that, in following Jason, she became a foreigner in a foreign land. In Euripides’ telling in his play “Medea” 2,500 years ago, Medea is a “barbarian” princess and enchantress from the faraway kingdom of Colchis in exile in the Greek city-state of Corinth. In Alfaro’s retelling in “Mojada,” Medea is a gifted dressmaker from Zamora, Mexico who has become an undocumented immigrant in Corona, Queens.

“Mojada” is sometimes clever in the ways in which it transposes the specifics of Euripides’ story and characters; sometimes the contemporary parallels feel forced.   But the main strength of “Mojada” is in presenting the details of the experience of the 21stcentury Latinx exile in scrupulous and credible detail — often harrowing, sometimes amusing.  By telling this story as an adaptation of an Ancient Greek tragedy, the everyday and oft-ignored traumas of the undocumented are invested with the aura of significance that they deserve.

Alfaro establishes this aura in the very first moments of the play, when Medea (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) engages in a somber Nahuatl ritual in the backyard of the old house in Corona in which she lives, grasping a large banana leaf in each hand as if they were wings, and slowly waving them up and down, as she utters an invocation in the Aztec language.  This ties the Mexican Medea, like the Medea of Euripides, to ancient ritual and myth . This is also the first of the suggestions throughout the play that Medea is like a bird – specifically a guaco. Jason (Alex Hernandez) affectionately calls her my guaco, and they greet each other playfully with the sound that the gauco makes – “gwa, gwa, gwa.” Indeed, Medea explains later that this is how the two met;  during a storm, Jason was drawn to the song of the bird, because he figured it was perched in a dry place, and discovered that it was not a bird at all making the sounds, but Medea imitating the bird.

What we’re not told explicitly in the play itself is what kind of bird the guaco is, and learning about it offers a glimpse into the subtle aspects of Alfaro’s artistry.  Certain indigenous peoples of Mexico see the bird as a healer, and, like Medea, imitate its sound.  Medea in “Mojada” is viewed as a healer.

Called a laughing falcon in English, the bird is a largely sedentary bird, preferring to perch for long periods of time than to fly. The Medea of “Mojada” is certainly sedentary; intimidated by her new surroundings and resisting assimilation, she doesn’t leave the house, not even to take her young child Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken)  to and from school.  For that she relies on her servant Tita (Socorro Santiago) who has been with the family since before Medea was born, and has served as a kind of surrogate mother ever since Medea’s real mother died.

But the guaca is also a predator, pouncing suddenly on its prey, which includes poisonous snakes.

Alfaro has created a character that is as close as a human can be to a poisonous snake. Pilar (Ada Maris), a long-ago immigrant from Cuba, is a ruthless real estate developer, who owns the house where Medea and her family live. Jason also works for her in construction, and he wants to get ahead by making the boss lady happy.

It’s obvious that Alfaro’s character of Pilar corresponds to Euripides’ character Glauce, a princess that the Jason of the Greek play wants to marry because of the advantages bestowed by royalty, while keeping Medea as a mistress.  But, unlike Glauce, Pilar is an evil schemer, who has designs on Jason that include not just marrying him, but evicting and banishing Medea, and taking her child – using the threat of calling ICE to get her way.  Alfaro has turned Pilar into such an unremitting villain that she seems less like a character from Greek tragedy than from an action movie – one so dastardly and obnoxious that we are meant to cheer their inevitable violent comeuppance by the hero.   What’s potentially lost in this change is some of the built-in complication in Medea’s character – or more precisely, the complication of our reaction to that character.

If there are some stumbles that make “Mojada” a less perfect realization of “Medea” than Alfaro’s “Oedipus El Rey” was of “Oedipus Rex” two years ago, it is in its own right both enlightening and entertaining, and plugged into the world around us.

Alfaro even makes an effort, largely successful, to make the production New York centric, changing it from the original setting of Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, where the play premiered in 2013 at director Chay Yew’s Victory Garden Theater. Yew’s direction brings out the humor in the production, in the observations of the difference between U.S. and Latin American culture and especially from the characters Luisa and Tita. Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga), a Puerto Rican who owns a churro cart, and wants to be called Lulu, is warm and funny as she befriends the new immigrant family. Tita’s blunt tongue is often amusing, especially in her sparring with Jason. But even the humor has an edge, the funny characters have their own sad tales to tell: Luisa had a house in Puerto Rico that was destroyed by the hurricane.

In two long monologues, Medea matter-of-factly tells the tale of how and why they left Mexico and traveled to New York. It is a tale of particular horror, involving assault and death, the stuff of dystopian nightmares, but existing right now. In the light of recent news events, it is bracing to hear Medea told to go home. She recounts one encounter: “A man is yelling at us. He wears a flag for a shirt. I don’t understand his words, but hate is the language we hear…We have come too far. It means nothing. Nothing, none of this man’s voice enters. If only he knew what it took to get this far.”

Mojada

at the Public Theater
Written by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Chay Yew
Scenic Design Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume Design Haydee Zelideth
Lighting Design David Weiner
Sound Design Mikhail Fiksel
Hair Style Consultant & Wig Designer Earon Chew Nealey
Projection Design Stephan Mazurek
Fight and Intimacy Director UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga as Luisa, Alex Hernandez as Jason, Ada Maris as Pilar, Benjamin Luis McCracken as Acan,Socorro Santiago as Tita, and Sabina Zúñiga Varela as Medea
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $60 to $150
“Mojada” is on stage through August 11, 2019

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Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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