In Mexico you typically see papel picado, a festive Mexican bunting, at such fun-filled occasions as parties or weddings. For the University of Victoria theatre department’s powerful production of Luis Alfaro’s Mojada it’s a central design motif.
White picado banners make up the floor-to-ceiling backdrop at the Phoenix Theatre. Beautifully lit, it’s a simple yet effective device. Yet there’s irony at work here, given the unrelenting grimness of Alfaro’s moving play.
When it comes to unrelenting grimness, it’s tough to beat Greek tragedy. Mojada is based on Euripedes’ Medea, in which the title character wreaks revenge on her unfaithful husband in a spectacularly bloodthirsty fashion.
Alfaro, a Chicano playwright, has written adaptations of such Greek classics such as Electra and Oedipus Rex. This production of Mojada — a Canadian premiere directed by Vancouver theatre artist Carmen Aguirre — resets Medea in a Los Angeles barrio populated with undocumented Mexican workers.
Medea (Ximena Garduño Rodriguez) is a talented seamstress working non-stop to help provide for her family. As family servant Tita (the excellent Judy Caranto) says : “She works like a dog on a leash to a sewing machine.”
Meanwhile, Medea’s common-law husband Hason (Rowan Watts) has landed a good job with construction magnate Armida (Becky Miner).
This sounds promising — ambitious Hason is climbing in the ladder in the land of plenty.
Unfortunately, Armida has the hots for the handsome young Mexican, who’s so desperate to make it in America he does the unthinkable and more. Even 10-year-old son Acan (Carrie Lam) thinks Armida is way more fun than his mom Medea, who seems inextricably stuck in the past.
Those with even a passing knowledge of Euripedes’ play know oodles of bad stuff lies in store. Yes, there are humorous moments. But you really want to keep an eye on the whereabouts of machetes when Medea’s around. Not only that, the seamstress designs a party dress that puts the deadly squeeze on Armida.
One of the best sequences in Mojada is when Tita recounts the awful journey that she, Medea, Hason and Acan undertook to the Mexico/U.S. border. They were smuggled under terrible conditions, gasping for air through rust holes in the truck’s windowless container before enduring much worse horrific abuse. (One might think that scene alone would make even the most hard-hearted of xenophobes empathic to the plight of refugees.)
Caranto is marvelous as Tita, a grey-haired narrator/Greek chorus who possesses supernatural powers rooted in ancient Mexican culture. The actor ably captured her character’s mix of drama and humour with authenticity and charisma.
All performers had good moments during Thursday’s opening night show. Armida is Alfaro’s weakest drawn character — a heartless baddie lacking in three-dimensionality.
Nonetheless Miner succeeded in bringing out Armida’s brittle ambition and her hollow embrace of American materialism.
As Medea, Rodriguez was at her best when she confronted her husband over his infidelity. We not only saw the strength of the character’s personality , we sensed the sheer power of a matriarch with deep and mysterious spiritual roots in her native culture.
The contributions of designers Lisa Van Oorschot (set/lights) and Christopher Stewart (sound) are key to this show’s success. And Aguirre’s direction is clear and sure-footed. The magic-realism improbability of some plot turns is countered by the visceral earthiness of the action. For instance, when Medea and her husband argue, he yanks her about the stage by her hair.
In the final scene Medea stands atop of their shack, her dress spattered in blood — an unforgettable image. Heartbreakingly she makes the “gwa, gwa’ sound of her namesake, a bird called the guaco that was also her husband’s pet name for her.
Well worth seeing, Mojada continues at the Phoenix Theatre to March 25.
Alan Bennett fans may be interested in Attitude Theatre’s production titled Talking Heads. The show showcases two selections from the English playwright’s 1988 TV monologue series Talking Heads. Bed Among the Lentils is about an alcoholic vicar’s wife (Lorene Cammiade) and A Lady of Letters concerns a woman who goes overboard with her letter-writing (Elizabeth Whitmarsh).
The production continues to March 26. Tickets are $20 at the door or via Eventbrite. Performances are at Theatre Inconnu (Paul Philips Hall, 1923 Fernwood Rd.)