One of the more striking elements in playwright Luis Alfaro’s work is his ability to successfully transpose Greek tragedy into stories about Mexican-Americans and Latino immigrants. Myths that may not feel relevant to many of us suddenly become germane as we watch Alfaro’s dramas about ordinary people who have extraordinary passions, much like the classical characters of old.
Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, staged by director Jessica Kubzansky at the Getty Villa’s outdoor Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, is the third Greek classic this playwright has adapted. The first, Electricidad, revolves around an East L.A. chola who buries her dad’s corpse in the family backyard, meanwhile plotting the death of her mom who killed him. The second, Oedipus El Rey, was produced — brilliantly — in 2010 at Pasadena’s Theatre@Boston Court (where Kubzansky remains co–artistic director). In that drama, the titanic clash between father and son is set against a gritty backdrop of gangs and prison.
Mojada — slang for “wetback” — is an immigrant’s story. Like her legendary namesake, Alfaro’s Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) has departed her country at the behest of her common-law husband/lover Hason (Justin Huen), a man eager to leave the past behind and improve his life here in the United States.
Medea is different. Gifted with special powers, she’s also a person with deep wounds and dark secrets. When Hason plans a family outing at the Santa Monica Pier, she hangs back; she’d rather stay at home. When they attempt, at her suggestion, to make love, harrowing memories ultimately cause her to push him away.
So when Armida (Marlene Forte), a successful businesswoman for whom Hason works, dangles before him the possibility of a better life, he succumbs. Even Medea’s sweet-natured son Acan (a charming and on-point Anthony Gonzalez, alternating with Quinn Marquez) drifts from his mom, lured by swimming pools, skateboards and big-screen TVs.
“The wife is the last to know,” as they say, and it takes Medea some time to realize she’s been betrayed. Once she realizes it, her transformation is swift. The character ignites, and Varela’s performance, muted to this point, ignites with it.
Huen, who has appeared in Alfaro’s plays as both Oedipus and Orestes, once again displays a capacity for nuance. As the handsome husband, he is slippery, sensual, perfidious and sincere all at once.
Alfaro is writing about immigrants and their assimilation, or lack thereof, and the pressures the dominant white culture exerts on their choices. In Huen’s Hason, we observe the process of his seduction: his exchange of love and family for material goods. His new lover, Armida, has been there, done that already. Witness her pitiless intent to strip Medea of everything: husband, son, home, income — even her faithful servant and childhood nurse, Tita (VIVIS). Forte is stellar as this remorseless villainess.
It would be a mistake to give the impression that Mojada is altogether bleak. There are grim and horrifying scenes, including an account of the family’s terrifying passage over the border, which is told to us by Tita, who sees the tragedy unfurl. And when secrets come out in the end, they pack a wallop.
But alongside the terror and pity are intimacy and tenderness and humor. This is a playwright who deeply cares for his characters and their culture, and in this sweeping rhythmic drama, he makes us care about them, too.
The Getty Villa, 17985 Pacific Coast Hwy., Pacific Palisdades; (310) 440-7300 or tickets.getty.edu; through Oct. 3.