It's tricky to approach a review of a production such as Luis Alfaro's "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles." The play is a work of art so rare in its lyricism and power that it doesn't much want for additional analysis. Indeed, it's a rare privilege to be party to the quality of performance on display here.
Alfaro — who, unsurprisingly, was a recipient of a MacArthur "Genius Grant" some 20 years ago — is a miraculously talented writer. Sitting through this play is an opportunity to experience what the American theater should be. The words that Alfaro has bestowed upon his characters flow over the audience like music, or good wine; by the end of the show, the fortunate observer is punch drunk, uplifted and challenged, smitten and heartbroken, all at once.
Set in the Chicano barrio of Los Angeles, the play introduces us to Medea (played with passion and complexity by the regal and gorgeous Sabina Zuniga Varela) and her husband, Jason (the excellent Lakin Valdez). Their warm but tenuous partnership is the glue that holds together a larger immigrant family. Having fled Mexico for a better life in the United States, they are bound in blood and tragedy. Also holding space for the two is Tita (VIVIS) an elderly relative who works to keep the memory of the old country alive for her young family.
These three extraordinary actors are the triad on whom the story rests. Varela is a thrilling artist whose physicality and powerful acting are utterly riveting. Valdez plays the conflicted and passionate Jason with a sort of cheerful guilt that is at once terrifying and compelling. VIVIS lives up to her iconic stage name by delivering a performance that is bursting with vitality, humor and pathos.
Filling out the cast are the no-less superb performances of Jahnangel Jimenez — who is wonderful as Acan, the couple's doomed 10-year-old son — as well as Vilma Silva, who is exceptional as Armida, a cruel and haughty land baroness upon whose largess the family relies. Nancy Rodriguez gives a stellar performance as Josefina, a fair-weather barrio friend who summarily turns on her compatriots to save her own neck.
While the play opens on a somewhat humorous note, showing us the warm center of a poor but happy family, things soon accelerate into a crescendo of unresolved anger, broken promises, betrayal and revenge well worthy of Euripides. The small foothold that the family has at the coalface of the American Dream crumbles into dust.
Director Juliette Carrillo has a special gift for stagecraft. Her direction, coupled with scenic and costume design by the astonishing Christopher Acebo, pulls the audience into the action and doesn't let go.
The brilliance of the work on display here is that it deals with a very contemporary and divisive political hot potato that is illegal immigration, but never panders to either side of that argument. Instead, there is a bare-boned exploration of the realities of living hidden in plain sight. The tragic conclusion of this magnificent play is that we are forced to face our own prejudices in the rubble of a ruined church — the church of decency, community and common humanity.
It's no small feat to pull off a work of such beauty that deals with subjects that are so pervasively ugly. Luis Alfaro's "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles" is an important, soul-nourishing play. It deserves your special attention.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.
(March 10: Updated to correct which roles Nancy Rodriguez and Vilma Silva played.)