Review: “Mojada”

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Aug. 11
Tickets: $20-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

The interview with Luis Alfaro in the program for Victory Gardens Theater’s world premiere of his “Mojada” (“wetback”) provides some clues as to why his adaptation of the Medea legend just doesn’t work. The playwright, whose “Oedipus el Rey” was a hit at Victory Gardens last year, wasn’t really interested in Medea at all until he started connecting her to contemporary issues, mainly immigration and the problems of being an exile in a foreign land. With encouragement from director Chay Yew, he also decided to give the play a Chicago hook, setting it in the Pilsen neighborhood. While the original version staged in San Francisco and entitled “Bruja” (“witch”) focused on magic, the rewrite devotes a lot of attention to the arduous, dangerous journey Medea; Jason; their son, Acan, and old servant, Tita, make from Mexico to the new city where Jason quickly adapts but Medea never feels at home.

While superimposing socio-political concepts on a classic story is seldom a good idea, the most wrongheaded feature of “Mojada” is the way Alfaro transforms Medea from a powerful woman, a sorceress in fact, into a meek helpmate eager to be a good little  wife to Jason. Portrayed as quiet and reserved by Sandra Delgado, she’s too timid to venture beyond the apartment and backyard for fear of being caught as an undocumented immigrant. She’s easily victimized, so when the ambitious Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) betrays her and marries Armida (Sandra Marquez), here depicted as a successful Mexican-born real-estate developer and construction company owner — as well as slum landlord, judging by Yu Shibigaki’s back porch set — Medea’s murderous reaction seems to be the desperate recourse of someone who feels helpless. 

Reducing her in this way may reflect traditional Mexican cultural values, but it also diminishes the tragedy (even if it makes Jason more of a cad). The Medea of legend repeatedly used her magic to make Jason’s triumphs possible, so his behavior was even more of a betrayal. Here, she’s a talented but underpaid seamstress who works at home to help support the family and talks about wanting him to be happy but is so ill at ease, she won’t take his suggestions about finding a real job and making new friends.  

“Mojada” also suffers from structural shortcomings. The storytelling shifts back and forth between the past and the present, with long stretches narrated by faithful servant Tita (Socorro Santiago). Some passages, particularly those involving traveling in the desert and encounters with the police, are too long and somehow out of place, rendering them less gut-wrenching than they should be. 

In addition, key information isn’t revealed until after we need it. For example, we’re supposed to assume the characters are speaking Spanish — rather than wondering why their English is so good even though they’ve been in the U.S. only a few months —but we don’t learn this until a few scenes in, when neighbor-baker Josephina (Charin Alvarez) shows up and says something about using her American name, Josie. In one encounter between Medea and Jason, she insistently urges him to make love in the backyard, then abruptly pulls back, and the reason isn’t revealed until much later.

A few other tendencies are equally irksome. Alfaro tries to inject some humor with mostly lame jokes and satires of Latino stereotypes, and some of the characters are cartoonish. Worst is Marquez’s Armida, a predatory villain of a businesswoman who’s so mean to Medea, and whose animosity escalates so quickly, I felt like I was watching one of the telenovelas Alfaro pokes fun at.

To top off the missteps in “Mojada,” the playwright doesn’t seem to have a very good grasp of Pilsen’s position or history. By calling the expansion of the University of Illinois at Chicago the impetus for the neighborhood’s gentrification, he seems to be confusing it with another area and overlooking the efforts of John Podmajersky, who renovated many buildings that attracted a slew of artists. Josie mocks the Caucasians who came as “hipsters,” but that’s not quite right.

My overall impression is that Alfaro needs to rewrite again. Even the title, “Mojada,” turns Medea into one of the poor and dispossessed, and though the legendary figure was an exile, she did her best to control her destiny rather than being buffeted by the whims of others. The ending here suggests the distraught woman becomes a ghostly version of the bird she’s compared to throughout, but that’s not what happened. She went on to other places and adventures. As to Jason, after finding his son too late, we’re left in the dark. I think the playwright needs to develop their relationship more rather than resorting to an overlay of clichés to propel the play.