Playwright Luis Alfaro dazzled Magic Theatre audiences two years ago with Oedipus el Rey, his lyrical barrio gangster update of Sophocles’ ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. It was hardly his first go-round with the Greeks; his 2003 play Electricidad explored the Electra tale in the same modern setting. Everyone knows Greek tragedies come in threes, so now Alfaro completes his trilogy of sorts (drawing from three completely different story cycles in different eras of classical mythology) with Bruja, a new version of Euripides’ Medea set among recent Mexican immigrants in San Francisco’s Mission District. This world premiere reunites Alfaro with Magic producing artistic director Loretta Greco, who directed his Oedipus and now helms Bruja.
Medea is one of those stories that everyone knows at least the basics of, so you’ll have to pardon any 2,400-year-old spoilers. Medea, a woman from Colchis in present-day Georgia (the former Soviet Socialist Republic, not the American state), has been brought to Corinth by the Greek hero Jason, leader of the Argonauts, after she helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her father and he married her. Now Jason has decided to abandon Medea to marry the daughter of King Creon of Corinth, since no one in Greece considers his barbarian marriage with Medea valid anyway, despite the fact that they have two children together. Not only spurned but about to be exiled for good measure, Medea gets her revenge on Jason by slaughtering their beloved children. Oh, and she also gives Jason’s new bride a wedding present, a poisoned dress that kills her in agony. When 17th-century English playwright William Congreve wrote, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned,/Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned,” he was relaying a lesson that Medea could well have been the first to teach.
A granddaughter of the sun god Helios and niece of Circe, Medea has often been depicted as a powerful witch, and bruja is the Spanish word for “witch.” Alfaro’s Medea is a curandera, a healer, and her neighbors keep coming for her to conduct ancient rituals from the old country to try to heal what ails them. “I want to be modern, I work so hard at it,” the forthright friend Aegeus tells her, “but I can’t help believing in the old ways.” Some of the more Americanized neighbors whisper that she’s a bruja, or so we’re told, but from what we can see if she’s a witch at all, she’s definitely a good witch. Jason is rising through the ranks quickly at a prominent construction company run by Creon, a guy who came over from the same area of Mexico, only much earlier. Creon seems to be grooming Jason to go far in the organization, only he keeps things in the family and he has this daughter… you can clearly see where this is going. Medea, in fact, is the only person in the Mission who doesn’t see where this is going.
Greco’s Magic staging builds atmosphere marvelously effectively. Andrew Boyce’s intriguing set creates an enticingly earthy courtyard with plain plywood walls and a patchwork of colorful tiles on the ground. Two young boys kick a soccer ball around as people take their seats. Jake Rodriguez’s sound design deftly mixes background noise of traffic and whatnot with powerful musical underscoring of the dramatic ritual elements, abetted by Eric Southern’s dramatic lighting and sparsely applied video by Ian Winters.
In loose, earthy clothes designed by Alex Jaeger, Sabina Zuniga Varela’s Medea is joyful and grounded, comfortable in her own skin and happily in love. Though she’s wise in seeing what ails the hearts of those around her, she’s strikingly oblivious to the implications of her husband’s swelling ambition. Sean San José has a boyish, good-hearted charm as Jason, who seems passionately in love with Medea and is great with the kids. But you can also see how increasingly obsessive his thirst for success is as he talks excitedly about how well he gets along with his boss. When he says everything he does is for the family, Medea and the boys, you can really believe that he believes that.
Carlos Aguirre is effectively hard-nosed and callous to the point of being sinister as Creon, the kind of guy no one says no to. Armando Rodriguez has a way of delivering his lines that makes them sound especially stilted, but there’s something so endearing about the humorous earnestness of his Aegeus (he wants people to call him Gus, but no one ever does) that he wins the viewer over anyway.
San Francisco Mime Troupe veteran Wilma Bonet is the real MVP of the production as Vieja, the servant who’s been with Medea since the latter was born. Filling the role of the Greek chorus, Bonet’s Vieja watches in sad concern and foreboding as the fated events take their course, but she also provides hilarious commentary with razor-sharp comic delivery. She mingles the comic and tragic elements remarkably well, playing off Medea even when things are almost at their worst, but she’s also a grounding presence, driving home the grim gravity of the situation.
The casting is a bit confusing in terms of age. Medea is supposed to be much younger than Jason—he says she’s just a girl—and Creon substantially older than either of them, yet they all look like they’re around the same age. Medea’s two children are said to be twins, yet the two who played the roles on opening night—impish nine-year-old Gavilian Gordon-Chavez and somber seventh grader Daniel Castaneda (alternating in the roles with Daniel Vigil and Mason Kreis)—are obviously several years apart in age. One’s so much littler than the other that it may not register immediately that they’re always dressed exactly alike.
Alfaro’s script is a deft mixture of the poetic and colloquial, with stretched of Spanglish and ritualized passages in the indigenous Nahuatl language. Though the story moves ahead with the implacable inevitability of myth, the characters are accessible and fairly relatable, except when it comes to the most important bit.
The way the killing is played is chilling, with an eerie cold fury, but that point isn’t built up to particularly well. Yes, Medea’s being treated terribly shabbily, but there isn’t that much of a sense of how that builds into murderous rage. There’s no hint of that darkness in her character earlier in the play—she’s easygoing, enjoying her life and her love. Late in the play she tells a story that gives some precedent for her suddenly becoming bloody-minded when slighted, but that just makes her seem like she’s always been dangerously crazy under her serene demeanor.
A big part of the problem is that the stakes are lower in Bruja than they are in the original story. Here the bloodiness in her back story was because she felt she was not being given her due. In Greek myth, Medea betrayed her father and her home and even killed her brother to help Jason escape with the Golden Fleece. She’d given up everything for him, saved his life and destroyed her own just to be with him. So when he casually tosses her aside, you can see where the magnitude of her rage comes from. Here her vengeance is the same, but you no longer have all that building up to it. What’s more, this Jason is much more sympathetic than usual. He’s doing a terrible, unforgiveable thing, but he clearly really does love Medea as well as the boys and does seem to believe that somehow they can all stay together somehow; it’s Creon who’s not having it.
In Euripides’s play there’s a lot of buildup about Medea’s rage. Everyone’s afraid of what she might do. Alfaro doesn’t give us even a hint of that violent potential in her until it comes out full force. He doesn’t have to. Everyone knows what story this is. Everyone knows how it’s going to end. So the tension here mostly has to do with Jason realizing what’s expected of him and everyone wondering when on earth Medea’s going to catch on to what’s about to happen—to what, in fact, is already happening—when people have practically told her about it outright more than once. When her reaction finally does come, it feels abrupt, belated and relatively shallow, more disproportionate to her admittedly terrible situation than ever. This is not righteous fury; it’s just blind rage. Just as Jason tells himself that everything he does is for Medea and the kids but it’s really for himself, Medea’s horrific revenge doesn’t really seem like the tragic consequence of Jason’s actions so much as what Medea does when she doesn’t get what she feels she deserves.
Despite some soberly beautiful mythic trappings, the effect is to turn grand tragedy into mere pathology. It shifts the focus from what could drive a loving mother to do such a thing to her children to what sort of person could do such a thing, and it doesn’t really answer that either. Maybe it’s because she’s deeply wounded from an early age, long before she met Jason, and maybe it’s because her embodiment of the old ways includes a certain measure of unfathomable savagery. In any case, the effect is to safely distance us from her heartbreaking plight and actions. Ultimately, what the whole brujaja* suggests is that the whispering neighbors were right about her all along.
Show #54 of 2012, attended June 6.
*a term I totally stole from Marisela Treviño Orta