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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 17, 2019

Alex Hernandez, Sabina Zúñiga Varela, Benjamin Luis McCracken,
and Socorro Santiago
Photo by Joan Marcus

Playwright Luis Alfaro's Mojada, opening tonight at the Public Theater, reshapes the ancient tale of Medea into a drumbeating cry for social justice on behalf of refugee immigrants. While it is not fully successful at simultaneously straddling the worlds of mythology and reality, it is absolutely harrowing as it details the treacherous journey of an unraveling family group that has fled Mexico for the U. S. and the fallout they can never shake off.

The reconceptualization of myths has become something of a specialty for Alfaro. In earlier plays, he took on Electra (Electricidad) and Oedipus (Oedipus El Rey), giving both an updated bilingual Latinx flair. The Public mounted a stunning production a couple of years ago of the latter, under the direction of Chay Yew. Yew is back on board to helm Mojada, the title of which is a pejorative term used to describe undocumented immigrants.

The locale of the play is a movable feast, conforming to the city where it is being performed. It once bore the longer title Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles; here in New York, the setting is Corona, Queens. Medea, Jason, their son Acan, and their servant Tita (a wonderfully wry performance by Socorro Santiago, who becomes the stand-in for the Greek Chorus) are living in a house owned by Jason's boss, Pilar. A wealthy and successful immigrant businesswoman, Pilar (Ada Maris) finds the much younger and muy guapo Jason a beddable prize well worth getting her claws into.

The play taps into elements of the Greek myth as it examines the domestic lives of the uprooted characters who are striving to fit in. Jason (Alex Hernandez) is fixated on assimilating and getting ahead, and he plans to take Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken) with him, even if it means abandoning Medea. If you are familiar with the source material, you can pretty much figure out that no good will come of this.

As in the myth, the soul of the story belongs to Medea. In this role, Sabina Zúñiga Varela gives a shattering performance that grows ever more disturbing over the course of the 100-minute intermissionless play. When we first meet her, she seems quiet and complacent, partly by inclination, partly because of the trauma of her past. She also suffers from debilitating agoraphobia that keeps her from stepping beyond the safety of her home, her sanctuary where she works day and night as a seamstress while earning far less than the minimum wage. With Jason often away and Acan at school, she only has Tita, the effusive churros seller from the neighborhood (a vivacious Vanessa Aspillaga), and her own churning thoughts for company. But there is no sanctuary for her, not really. And the gathering storm she has attempted to shield herself from strengthens and corners her, leaving her with no escape until she creates an explosive one of her own.

Mojada is not subtle in laying out its socio-political purpose. Much is made of the ways in which undocumented immigrants are taken advantage of, just as much is made of the diversity of Latinx peoples. Jason and Medea are Mexican "mojados"; Pilar is Cuban and a legal immigrant, which coveys a higher status; Luisa the churros vendor is Puerto Rican and explains how she is trying to be accepted; and one of the other refugees they talk about is Guatemalan. Luis Alfaro, the playwright, is too good a writer for things to fall completely into speechifying mode, but the play does offer up a lot of "tell," where "show" might be more effective, and the inspirational source, the mythic quality, is at times shoehorned into the plot. Nevertheless, this is decidedly a play for our time, and even when it falls into polemic discourse, it packs a real wallop.

Through August 11
LuEsther Hall at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
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