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A CurtainUp Review
By Dan Rubins
Luis Alfaro has made no secret of the dramatic origins of his characters in the Public Theater's Mojada. Like last season's Oedipus el Rey and an earlier work, Electricidad: A Take On the Tragedy of Elektra, Mojada's central characters — Medea and Jason — receive their names from a Greek tragedy. The play's promise of an ending with echoes of Euripides' own wrenching conclusion to his original Medea never seems in doubt.
So why, given that our thoughts are far from ancient Greece as we first encounter this sharply present-day tale centered around an undocumented mother newly arrived in Queens, does Alfaro choose to remind us of the denouement to come each time we hear Medea's name?
This Medea (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) is a masterful seamstress. "Back home" in their Mexican village, her doting servant Tita (Socorro Santiago) tells us, "she is an artist, la reina del vestido. Here she is a sewing machine." Unlike Medea, terrified to leave their new yard and constantly conjuring up sonic remembrances of their old life through an indigenous ritual, Jason (Alex Hernandez) has embraced his newfound American identity. He's eager to climb the ladder, working for real estate contractor Pilar (Ada Maris), and he wants Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), his son with Medea, to call him dad instead of papi.
For audiences aware of even the vaguest outline of Medea's story, there's a pall hanging somewhere high above the early, almost-playful scenes between Medea and Jason and Acan. Mojada's scenes begin to accelerate as the play, directed with fluidity and emotional variety by Chay Yew, wraps itself more tightly around the source material, this contemporary storyline colliding into its ancient ancestor until there is no escape.
And perhaps it is this very inevitability — the surety of a specific, horrific tragic catharsis — that makes Mojada such a warmly vital gift from the beginning. With grief and mortality so deeply embedded in the play's identity, Alfaro invites the audience to relish the surprising poetry, TIta's biting narratorial humor, and Acan's open-hearted embrace of the possibilities in his young life. It's Santiago, as Tita, who carries the heart of this play, and she does so through gregarious, wise asides to the audience, to whom she can't resist sharing the gossip despite her decidedly mixed feelings: "I smile, but I hate you," she warns us early on.
But there's also Medea, whose journey across the border, which she retells in harrowing soliloquy featuring frightening lighting design from David Weiner, has left her with permanent scars. Try as she might to escape that trauma, it narrows her world. Zúñiga Varela imbues the role with a magnetic quality of in-betweenness: Medea feverishly wants to be fully present on the streets of Queens, reconstructed viscerally by Anulfo Maldonado. "I want to make love in this yard and make it a special place for us. I don't want it to feel like a prison," she tells Jason, but instead her heart always remains distant, back home. She seems both modern and mythical.
As played by Maris, the haughty Pilar seems closer to a storybook evil stepmother than real flesh and blood, but there's a sense, too, that Pilar, also an immigrant, has written the storybook herself. "I didn't create the laws of this country," she says, sneeringly honest. "I just use them for negotiation."
All of Alfaro's characters are Latinx, and he offers deep contrasts between the ways that different newcomers, even within the same family, make sense of their new home and their suddenly shared identities. As Luisa, a Puerto Rican displaced by Hurricane Maria and now the proud owner of a churro cart, Vanessa Aspillaga pulsates with a kind of jubilant despair. Luisa wants to be called Lulu now that she's on the mainland, but she also recognizes Medea as a sister: "I know we are not from the same country, but we are from the same feeling," she tells her. McCracken's spirited Acan, with no reason to doubt his successful assimilation, begins to lose his faith in his future here when kids at school call him a "wetback."
Indeed, the term "mojada" is a slur with the same meaning. Prior to some past productions (which have now spanned Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — review to the latter here), Alfaro had to argue for his title and his play in response to protest from Spanish-speaking would-be audiences. And just as Medea's name guarantees this character a cruel fate, Alfaro's harsh title hovers over the play, too. It's a reminder that hate and prejudice, both personal and systematic, have the potential to shape the lives of immigrants and their children, even though this play, with the exception of Medea's flashbacks, never shows that hate in action explicitly. It's enough, and perhaps sorrowfully inevitable, too, that the play opens at the Public as ICE increases raids on undocumented families across the country.
What Mojada leaves audiences with, in its essential final moments, is neither story nor image nor dialogue but sound. Mikhail Fiksel's design bathes Mojada in defining soundscapes (the memories of Mexican ocean, the suffocation of New York sidewalks, the metallic dustiness of the border), but it is Medea whose voice rings out at the end, imitating the call of the Guaco bird. It is the cry of a woman seeking connection and meeting only — inevitably — with a country that does not hear her.
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Mojada by Luis Alfaro
Directed by Chay Yew
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga, Alex Hernandez, Ada Maris, Benjamin Luis McCracken, Socorro Santiago, and Sabina Zúñiga Varela
Set Designer: Arnulfo Maldonado
Lighting Designer: David Weiner
Sound Designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth
Projection Designer: Stephen Mazurek
Running Time: 1 hr 45 minutes, no intermission
The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
From 7/2/19; opening 7/17/19; closing 8/11/19
Tuesdays-Sundays at 8, Saturdays-Sundays at 2
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 7/11 performance
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