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posted: 7/26/2013 6:00 AM

Modern-day 'Medea': Transplanted tragedy set in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood

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  • Mexican immigrants Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) and Medea (Sandra Delgado) try to make a better life for themselves and their son in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in Luis Alfaro's "Mojada," in its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater.

      Mexican immigrants Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) and Medea (Sandra Delgado) try to make a better life for themselves and their son in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood in Luis Alfaro's "Mojada," in its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Landlord Armida (Sandra Marquez), right, threatens Medea (Sanda Delgado), center, and her nanny/servant Tita (Socorro Santiago) in Victory Gardens Theater's world premiere of "Mojada" Luis Alfaro's latest Greek myth-inspired drama.

      Landlord Armida (Sandra Marquez), right, threatens Medea (Sanda Delgado), center, and her nanny/servant Tita (Socorro Santiago) in Victory Gardens Theater's world premiere of "Mojada" Luis Alfaro's latest Greek myth-inspired drama.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

  • Playwright Luis Alfaro and director Chay Yew re-create the journey of desperate, undocumented immigrants to begin their new lives in the U.S. in "Mojada." Victory Gardens Theater's world premiere features Juan Francisco Villa, left, Sandra Delgado, Socorro Santiago, Dylan M. Lainez, Charin Alvarez and Sandra Marquez.

      Playwright Luis Alfaro and director Chay Yew re-create the journey of desperate, undocumented immigrants to begin their new lives in the U.S. in "Mojada." Victory Gardens Theater's world premiere features Juan Francisco Villa, left, Sandra Delgado, Socorro Santiago, Dylan M. Lainez, Charin Alvarez and Sandra Marquez.
    courtesy of Michael Brosilow

 
 

Conflicts between obligation and self-interest, between assimilation and isolation, propel "Mojada," Luis Alfaro's retelling of Euripides' "Medea" in its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater.

This isn't the first time Alfaro has re-imagined a Greek classic as a contemporary Latino tragedy. In fact, "Mojada" isn't Alfaro's first take on the Jason and Medea myth. Its predecessor, "Bruja" (Spanish for witch), premiered last year in San Francisco.

After Victory Gardens director Chay Yew expressed interest in "Bruja" and further examination of the immigration issues related to it, Alfaro made some revisions. He retitled the play "Mojada," which translates to "wetback," a derogatory term for undocumented Mexican immigrants, and set it in Pilsen, a Chicago neighborhood with a large Latino population. What emerges is not just a meditation on immigration and assimilation but on what it takes to survive such a life-changing event.

The action unfolds on the concrete slab that serves as the backyard of a rundown, two-flat (an authentic, woefully accurate set by Yu Shibigaki) onto which designer Liviu Pasare projects some especially telling images. The top floor is occupied by a family of undocumented immigrants recently arrived in the United States from Mexico.

In Alfaro's version, quaint, quiet Medea (the understated, exquisitely vulnerable Sandra Delgado) is an expert seamstress who works from home sewing fashions for a major department store. Meanwhile Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) pursues the American dream, putting in long hours working construction for Pilsen real estate developer Armida (Sandra Marquez). Herself an immigrant from Mexico, Armida arrived in the U.S. on a student visa, married wisely and amassed the kind of power typically reserved for Chicago aldermen.

Also on hand is Medea's longtime servant Tita (a most engaging Socorro Santiago), a mystic and healer who serves as the play's Greek chorus, and who helps look after Medea and Jason's young son Acan (Dylan M. Lainez). Last but not least there is Josephina, an industrious, adaptable food cart owner, played by the endlessly appealing Charin Alvarez. She expertly balances the sunny optimism of someone eager to embrace the opportunities her adopted country affords, with a shrewd understanding of how to access those opportunities.

Alfaro knows his source material and his subject. His observations about immigration -- from the fear of detection to the desire to secure a legacy for oneself and one's family -- are as immediate as today's headlines. His writing is vigorous and heartfelt. His passion is apparent and his Medea is compelling, well-drawn and, yes, sympathetic, right until the moment she picks up a machete.

Unfortunately, not all of his characters are as well-drawn. Power broker Armida, for example, comes across as a two-dimensional villain bordering on cartoonish despite the best efforts of the talented Marquez, whose character I found myself comparing to Cruella de Vil.

That said, director Yew's solid production boasts some fine dramatic moments. Among them is the torturous journey the family makes from Mexico, across the Arizona desert and over the interstate to Chicago. Depicted by Yew in harrowing detail, these tension-filled scenes -- narrated with unsettling urgency by Santiago's Tita -- reveal the brutality and suffering undocumented immigrants endure on their journey to a better life.

As for Delgado, hers is a fervent, carefully etched performance. We watch Medea's innocence shatter as she learns the extent of Jason's betrayal. And we watch as rage and madness take its place. We cannot do otherwise. Delgado's transformation from vulnerable to vengeful is just that compelling.

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