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Theatre in Review: Mojada (The Public Theater)

Sabina Zúñiga Varela, Ada Maris, Alex Hernandez. Photo: Joan Marcus.

In 2017, The Public presented Luis Alfaro's Oedipus El Rey, which plausibly updated Sophocles' tragedy to the contemporary world of Southern California's gang culture; like its source material, it benefited from solid construction and a clean dramatic line that provided the title character with a compelling road map to disaster. In Mojada, now at the Public, Alfaro reimagines Medea as a tragedy set among illegal immigrants in Queens. But Euripides' horrifying tale of filicide proves more resistant to such an approach. Where Oedipus El Rey retained its original power while feeling thoroughly of this moment, Mojada gets caught up in plot contortions that seem strangely irrelevant to the white-hot issue of immigration.

In Alfaro's version, Medea and Jason, having arrived from Mexico, occupy a second-floor apartment in Corona with their son, Acan, and their servant, Tita. (A self-described "mother with no children," Tita notes that, as a young woman, she was sold to Medea's family "along with a little goat," a statement that raises more questions than it answers.) Considering their irregular status, the little family is doing surprisingly well. Jason has a job in construction -- which, perhaps oddly, keeps him away from home until late at night. Medea, a gifted seamstress, does piecework for a clothing manufacturer. To be sure, she is being exploited; as Tita notes, "Late at night they come in a van. Chinos, Gabachos, Rusos, to deliver stacks of fabric and pick up shirts and dresses. They say, 'No name, no social, we pay you cash. You complain, we go to someone else'." Still, Jason assures her, "I promise that when I am in charge, my wife is going to stay home and make me tamales all day. Real ones made with lard."

But then, why is Medea so anxious? Why is she afraid, to the point of agoraphobia, to leave her yard? (A proposed trip to Coney Island with the family is a nonstarter.) Why is she unable to make love with Jason? And why is she so tense about Jason's lady boss, Pilar -- especially as Pilar has moved him into her office, a seeming promotion?

The answer to the last question becomes clear at a dinner where Pilar takes a rather-too-proprietary interest in Jason while broadly hinting that Medea will have to make certain sacrifices if she wants her family to succeed in America. Pilar also knows about certain irregularities in the couple's living arrangement that could spell additional trouble for Medea. And when the unnerved Medea asks her to leave, Pilar responds, "I will leave the house I own when I am ready." As it happens, they are totally dependent on Pilar, who has plans for them all.

The other sources of Medea's fears become evident in a series of flashbacks that detail how she, Jason, Acan, and Tita made their way to this country. (Alfaro holds back until late the most urgent reason why Jason and Medea were forced to flee to the US. Zamora, their hometown, has been portrayed in the news as crime-ridden, but Medea has a secret that she cannot bear to reveal.) The on-the-road passages are the play's best, offering a frank account of the sufferings -- the grossly dehumanizing experiences -- that so many immigrants endure trying to get here; a scene in which officers from ICE invade a bus on which the family is riding packs considerable suspense. It's here that Alfaro comes closest to plausibly reframing a classic tragedy in the context of today.

In this case, however, Alfaro's view of the original material proves to be more of a distorting lens. In setting up the terrible climax that must come in any retelling of Medea, the playwright entangles the characters in a series of twists -- involving rape, murder, and multiple betrayals -- that could fill an entire telenovela. Any one of them is the stuff of powerful conflict; strung together, they cast the play in a lurid light. As the horrifying revelations of the last week have shown, the problems of illegal immigrants are enough for the most harrowing of dramas; there's no need to pile on plot twists involving predatory lady contractors. You might also find yourself balking at the play's deterministic vision, in which the streets of America are paved only with fool's gold, I lost track of the times one character or another advises Medea some variation of "You can't let the past be the future" or "It's just the way things are in this country" -- the latter usually being said just before some moral or ethical line is crossed.

Under the circumstances, the cast members are hard-pressed to make sense of their characters. Sabina Zúñiga Varela struggles with the contradictions of Medea, who is passive and unusually naïve about the ways of the world, until she takes the bloody action for which her name is notorious. (It's one of the play's difficulties that, even cornered as she is, her climactic act of murder isn't convincing.) Jason is so underwritten as to leave Alex Hernandez with nothing to do; there's no way for the actor to bring coherence to the character's whipsawing impulses. Pilar, a Cuban who came here on the Mariel boatlift and married a Mr. Blumenthal -- a name that is, oddly, played for laughs, the implication being that she did the pragmatic thing by marrying a wealthy Jew -- is a cartoon of capitalist evil, but Ada Maris at least gives her some very real menace. Socorro Santiago is solid as Tita, who has a tough observation on tap for every situation, and Vanessa Aspillaga steals each of her scenes as a garrulous churro-vendor who proves to be the falsest of friends. Benjamin Luis McCracken is a sweetly appealing presence as Acan.

The production offers a typically fine Public Theater mounting, beginning with Arnulfo Maldonado's detail-perfect two-level house exterior. (You'll swear it was trucked in from Queens.) David Weiner's lighting creates a series of effective time-of-day looks, especially a lovely night-into-morning cue. Stephan Mazurek's projections -- including images of passing landscapes, Forty-second Street, and the Golden Arches -- add a great deal to accounts of the family's migration. Haydee Zelideth's costumes -- especially Pilar's frankly seductive ensembles -- are perfect for the characters. Most effective is Mikhail Fiksel's sound design, with effects that include wind chimes, a crying baby, a subway train, and, when Medea tries to step off her property, a terrifying soundscape of street noises that reflects her sheer terror.

Alfaro adds to the narrative intriguing touch of indigenous spirituality, providing a finale that is an imaginative rethinking of Medea's traditional escape in a winged chariot. But if Mojada proves anything, it may be that some classical tragedies fight adaptation more than others. It also suggests that the problem of illegal immigration is a vast and complicated one that needs more sophisticated treatment than it gets here. In any case, this is the first time I've ever seen a version of Medea in which the title character's climactic bloodstained act didn't make me shudder. There's something criminal about that. -- David Barbour

(18 July 2019)

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