Is it possible to make a retroactive decision to put Ancient Greek tragedies under copyright? That would eliminate the glut of modern-day adaptations by contemporary playwrights apparently too short of inspiration to come up with original ideas. And while we’re at it, let’s add Shakespeare’s plays as well.
Luis Alfaro, a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship recipient whose program bio lists a dizzying array of awards, honors, grants and academic credentials, has made a specialty of the practice. His new play, based on Euripides’ Medea, is the latest entry in a series that also includes 2003’s Electricidad and 2010’s Oedipus El Rey (no points for guessing which Greek tragedies those are based on). Mojada, currently receiving its New York City premiere after previous productions in Chicago; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, has been tweaked along the way to complement the locale of every iteration; the play’s setting in this rendition is Corona, Queens.
That’s where Medea (Sabina Zúñiga Varela), an independent seamstress who works from home, lives with her husband Jason (Alex Hernandez), 10-year-old son Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken) and elderly live-in servant Tita (Socorro Santiago), a folk healer who acts as the play’s de facto Greek chorus. Their run-down house has been rented from Jason’s boss Pilar (Ada Maris), a Cuban émigré who has prospered in her adopted country.
The family are undocumented immigrants from Mexico’s Michoacán region who live in fear of being apprehended by ICE. Jason is eager to assimilate and have Acan blend into his new environment, while Medea clings to the old ways, resisting his efforts to Americanize their little boy.
Speaking of Acan, it’s best not to get too attached to him. That would normally qualify as a spoiler, except that all but the most uninformed viewers will be aware from the beginning exactly how the play is going to end. Since that knowledge inevitably robs the proceedings of suspense, what’s left is for the audience to see how the playwright updates the ancient storyline.
The answer to that is… awkwardly. There’s plenty of relevant, timely drama to be gleaned from the plight of a Mexican family desperately attempting to establish a new life, and that’s where Mojada is most successful. Narrated flashbacks depicting Medea’s oppressed existence in her native country, where she was raped by soldiers, and the family’s harrowing journey across the border, provide some of the production’s most gripping moments. But the play, whose title is a derogatory Spanish term meaning “wetback,” becomes wildly over-the-top in its slavish attempt to mimic the classic tale.
Lacking the mythic qualities of its inspiration, this adaptation more often than not comes across as a telenovela, with its most floridly evil character being Pilar, whose interest in the hunky, macho Jason goes far beyond the professional. And when the proceedings aren’t hokily melodramatic, they border on sitcom-style silliness, most notably in the form of Luisa (a very funny Vanessa Aspillaga), an earthy, Puerto Rican churro vendor who’s not shy about disrobing in public to try on the dresses she keeps entreating Medea to make for her. Referring to Medea’s handsome husband, Luisa lustily inquires, “When he was a kid, did he tour with Menudo?”
By the time Medea kills off her rival with a poisoned dress in an echo of her namesake character’s dispatching of Creon’s new wife, the updating has long since lapsed into ludicrousness.
Director Chay Yew proves unable to provide the necessary theatrical urgency or make the play’s mythical and contemporary elements blend into a coherent whole, although Haydee Zelideth’s costumes are culturally apt and Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design provides vivid atmospherics. The performances, to put it charitably, are uneven, with Zúñiga Varela proving more effective conveying Medea’s haunted vulnerability than her subsequent descent into vengeful madness.
Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga, Alex Hernandez, Ada Maris, Benjamin Luis McCracken, Socorro Santiago, Sabina Zúñiga Varela
Playwright: Luis Alfaro
Director: Chay Yew
Set designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Costume design: Haydee Zelideth
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Projection designer: Stephan Mazurek
Presented by The Public Theater