Review

'Mojada' at the Getty Villa convincingly updates Greek tragedy to modern-day L.A.

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

Medea, Greek tragedy's wronged wife turned homicidal avenger, is currently living as a seamstress in Boyle Heights.

An immigrant from Mexico living here illegally, she is having trouble adapting to the daily grind of life in her new country. Chained to her sewing machine all day, she broods about her husband, Hason, who works nonstop for a very demanding female boss, while her gossipy servant, Tita, wonders why they left their country for a dream that looks more and more like a nightmare.

In "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," playwright Luis Alfaro transforms Euripides' drama into an immigrant tale that exposes the soul-destroying costs of assimilation. High tragedy this isn't. Alfaro, freely mixing comedy with drama, is after something more recognizable and relatable, and he mostly succeeds.

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The play, which is being produced by the Theatre @ Boston Court at the Getty Villa's outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, hews to the basic outline of Euripides' best known work but shifts the emphasis so that it's now more about the way Medea's new social context informs her tragedy.

The characters themselves, while vividly drawn and well acted in Jessica Kubzansky's confident staging, aren't quite as ferocious as their Euripidean counterparts. A melancholy suffuses their every move.

Sabina Zuniga Varela's beautiful yet clearly grief-stricken Medea fiddles with swatches of fabric as though unable to lift her sorrowful head. She refuses to make time for a family outing to Santa Monica even after she hears that the trip requires only two bus rides each way. To judge by her dejected body language, she works compulsively not merely to earn money but to expiate some secret guilt.

Justin Huen's Hason, hardly the shameless narcissist of the original, seems genuinely burdened by the deceits he plays on his wife. Desperate to improve his family's economic conditions, he's determined to be a winner in America, even if it means squashing his conscience and selectively erasing his cultural heritage. But his sympathy for his wife and her old country ways is palpable.

The role of Tita, part nurse, part chorus, is assumed by the actress with the unusual name of VIVIS, who brings a marvelous peasant vitality to the role. Mixing Spanish, English and Spanglish, Tita, much like one of Shakespeare's fools, can't help voicing what everyone else is afraid to acknowledge.

Anthony Gonzalez played Acan, Medea and Hason's 10-year-old son, at the reviewed performance with just the right unstudied naturalism. (Quinn Marquez alternates in the role.) He is the object of a tug of war between Medea, who wants to raise him in the traditions of her people, and Hason, who would prefer his son to wear an American soccer shirt and call him Dad instead of Papi.

Alfaro occasionally falls into overstatement, sign-boarding his story, as when Josefina (Zilah Mendoza), the childless barrio bread merchant who asks Medea to make her a sexy dress so that she might finally get pregnant by her overworked husband, says of Acan, "He is everything, isn't he…. The reason we live. Why we endure the pain of this country. This is all we have, Medea, this hope. Don't ever let him go."

Josefina essentially substitutes for Aegeus, the Athenian king who promises Medea future asylum for providing him with a fertility potion. (In Alfaro's version, the character offers her friend her garage.) Although portrayed with zest by Mendoza, Josefina at times seems as if the demands of the story are controlling her actions.

If Alfaro's plot occasionally gets snarled, it is the price of his outsized ambition. He's trying to graft onto the original a whole other dimension that expands our understanding of Medea's plight as foreigner and exile. An elaborate recounting of the family's perilous trip across the border is gripping in its stark horror, though it makes the seams of the drama stick out more than Medea, a perfectionist tailor, would countenance in her own handiwork.

By the time Armida (a robustly take-charge Marlene Forte), Hason's employer who wants more from him than hard work, delivers her ultimatum to Medea, the play is nearly over. Not only does she plan to take possession of Medea's man and child, she also gives Medea a single day to move out of the home that Armida, a ruthless businesswoman, happens to own.

The way the drama is structured doesn't give Alfaro much time to probe Medea's thought process. She reacts whereas in Euripides the character both reflects and reacts, emotion superseding reason but not entirely displacing it.

For all the melodrama inherent in his tragedy, Euripides maintains a critical distance that allows him to interrogate the deeper meanings of his play. Alfaro's handling offers rewards of another sort: This richly detailed story lures in a new audience with its gritty urban setting and modern Angeleno accents. Better still, it casts a beguiling narrative spell while finding opportunities for biting cultural commentary on a not-

always-hospitable America.

This isn't the first time that Alfaro, who has had a fruitful history adapting the Greeks, has taken a crack at "Medea." It's a play that is unusually open to this kind of reinvention. (Irish playwright Marina Carr successfully transposes the world to Midlands Ireland in her mesmerizing "By the Bog of Cats.")

"Mojada," a pejorative slang term reflecting Medea's vulnerable immigrant status, is too direct in its manner to aim for lofty tragic effects.

But Kubzansky's production brings to the work

a lovely classical poise through her ace design team (Efren Delgadillo Jr.'s sets, Ben Zamora's lighting, Raquel Barreto's costumes and Bruno Louchouarn's original music and sound), poignant leads and pungent supporting cast.

This is a Los Angeles "Medea," but a larger universe can sometimes be glimpsed on the family's Boyle Heights block.

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'Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles'

Where: Getty Villa, the Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Pacific Palisades

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Ends Oct. 3

Tickets: $40-$45

Info: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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