Well, it’s spring, and the annual Oregon Shakespeare Festival has kicked off its 2017 season with four new shows – out of an eventual total of eleven —the majority of them playing for the next nine months in Ashland, Oregon. The First Four include a frisky stage adaptation of the film ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ and two plays by William Shakespeare – a bloody and visceral staging of ‘Julius Caesar’ and a highly entertaining take on the father-son history ‘Richard IV, Part One.’
Taken together, they make for a strong opening salvo at OSF.
For me, the most impressive of the bunch, however is the play ‘Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles,’ by the prolific L.A.-born writer Luis Alfaro, presented with remarkable power and passion by director Juliette Carrillo.
Alfaro has adapted a number of classic Greek tragedies over the years, putting a Latino-spin on such influential myths at Elektra and Oedipus Rex — and now Medea. In ‘Mojada’ – the Spanish word for ‘wet,’ as in ‘wetback’ — Medea is an undocumented Mexican seamstress, living in L.A. with her husband Jason, her son Acan, and her talkative, Greek Chorus-like storyteller Tita. They are all survivors of a brutal crossing from Mexico, which, we eventually learn, has cost Medea much more than mere money or blood.
Frail and fearful, she now confines herself to her small yard in L.A.s Boyle Heights barrio, avoiding her neighbors, helping to make beautiful dresses she could never afford to buy with the meager wages she earns.
Played with ferocious fragility by a superb Sabina Zuniga Varela, Medea carries some very dark secrets—and a desperate fear of losing Jason (an excellent Lakin Valdez), a construction worker whose American dreams of money and influence have placed him in an uneasy alliance with the wealthy widow Armida (Vilma Silva, wonderful). Also an immigrant – though with a very different story of making her way to the States – Armida employs Jason as a contractor in her construction company, and may have her eye on more than just his house-building talents.
Medea’s neighbor, the over-effusive Josefina (Nancy Rodriguez), is yet another version of the immigrant story. She’s a hard-working baker who rises early to make the bread she sells from a cart on the streets. Providing some easy comic relief, Josefina’s resourceful acceptance of America’s love-hate relationship with its immigrant population is a stark reminder of what Medea could become, if she could somehow find a sense of power and strength in her life, all of which this strange new land seems to want to deny her.
Anyone familiar with the Medea story, of course, will know where all of this headed, and the machete occasionally wielded by Tita (wonderfully played by VIVIS) just serves as a constant reminder of what’s to come.
Alfaro does much more with this marvelous, gorgeously constructed drama than just parrot the bloody plot turns of the original Medea myth. In retelling it through the eyes of a Mexican immigrant in America – with one stunning bit of beautifully queasy magical realism – the playwright reveals what happens when any human being is denied a sense of humanity, dignity, and control over their own lives.
I should add that the set by Christopher Acebo is a little marvel of architectural beauty and poetry – a circle of chain link and concrete, a garden grown in old tires and tin cans, and a tiny house that appears to almost float above the yard, with vast roots angling beneath it – as if to suggest the sense of ‘uprootedness’ and ‘in-between-ness’ that constantly threatens to define Medea, as it does, tragically, an entire generation of disenfranchised American dreamers.
For the full schedule of shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, visit OSFashland.org.