By John Lyle Belden
“Medea” is one of the most produced tragedies of all time, going back to when Euripides set this mythical woman’s story on a Greek stage in 431 BC. In this past century, the play is often produced through a feminist perspective, a woman in a man’s world driven to dire acts to reclaim herself. To this, contemporary Chicano playwright Luis Alfaro layers on the story of today’s Latinx immigrants, complete with the ancient spiritual energy of the Americas.
Indianapolis Shakespeare Company presents Alfaro’s “Mojada” at the Phoenix Theatre Cultural Centre, directed by Maria Souza.
Medea (Erica Cruz Hernandez) makes her living as a seamstress working from her present home in a rapidly developing neighborhood in California. She came here from Zamora, Mexico (deep in the country, west of Mexico City) with Jason (pronounced “Ha-sohn,” played by Christopher Centinaro) and their son, Acan (Jasmin Martinez), as well as a woman only known by the word for a dear aunt, Tita (Isabel Quintero). While Jason works his way up from construction laborer to assistant to Armida (Kidany Camilo), the woman who owns their house, Medea never strays far from her front door, looking to Tita, a curandera (healer), to keep her connected to her old homeland. Neighbor and pastry baker Josefina (Camilo), who sports blond hair and wants to be called “Josie,” encourages Medea to “be of this place,” but she refuses, even as her man – as well as young Acan – spend ever more time at the boss’s luxury estate.
Even without knowing the Greek source material, you can tell this won’t end well.
This production, in the intimate confines of the Phoenix’s Basile Theatre, is bilingual – and at times trilingual – with projected captions on the back wall in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl (Aztec language). This bit of inclusivity and culture aids understanding and context, but works best seen from the stage-front section of seats. The gods and spirits invoked here are of the New World, including sacred animals, the Guaco bird and Monarch butterfly. Tita is our guide in this way, as well as the classic function of Chorus.
While Centinaro, Martinez and Camilo ably play relatable roles of those wishing to assimilate, Hernandez is fascinating as a woman who is both stuck, unable to move from her past, and justifiably stubborn, not wanting to pull off her native culture like an old garment. Quintero nimbly works from sweet to flinty, and ever wise, like anyone’s favorite aunt.
In a flashback scene, we see what these immigrants endured and sacrificed to arrive at this place, and why Medea can’t go home. This may be the most important part of the play, a lesson for those who only know their struggles from a few words in the news, while deepening the reasons for the coming madness.
“Indy-Shakes” chose wisely to open its 2023 season with this hybrid legend, made richer by the contributions of both Euripides and Alfaro, brought excellently to life in – naturally – the Phoenix. Performances of “Mojada” run through March 5 at 705 N. Illinois St., get info at indyshakes.com and tickets at phoenixtheatre.org.