Magic Theatre’s ‘Bruja’: reimagining Medea

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: 2/5 Stars » Worth Seeing)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Playwright Luis Alfaro has been around for a while, and accomplished a great deal of remarkable work. He has been awarded fellowships by both the MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. For ten years he worked with Los Angeles’ renowned Mark Taper Forum as Associate Producer, Director of New Play Development and co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative. He is the author of many widely-admired short stories, plays and poems. He is without a doubt one of the most important Chicano writers working in America today.

Last year, Magic Theatre premiered his play Oedipus el Rey, a Chicano interpretation of the Oedipus myth set in a Los Angeles barrio which has been widely admired and produced nationwide.

Currently, he has returned to Greek tragedy with Bruja, a revisioning of Euripides’ Medea set among Mexican immigrants in the Mission district of San Francisco. It is a fascinating premise. Certainly, the original lends itself to the exploration of themes involving immigrant culture, survival in exile, prejudice, passion, faithfulness and despair. And, without a doubt, these themes fit snugly into the immigrant life and struggles of the Mission.

Alas, the present production does not really come together effectively.

Sabina Zuniga Varela as the curandera Medea in the world premiere of Luis Alfaro’s “Bruja” at the Magic Theatre. Photo credit: Magic Theatre.

Certainly, the actors are convincing as Mexican immigrants struggling to make it in San Francisco, especially the wonderful Wilma Bonet as Vieja, the aging household servant who serves the function of a Greek chorus.  The production works well in presenting aspects of Mexican and immigrant culture. We can identify with the struggles of Jason who labors for the successful Creon and dreams of making it big in America. We are moved by Medea’s commitment to her spiritual roots in the rural tradition of Curandera, and we are suitably shocked at Creon’s cruel manipulation of Jason and Medea which leads to Jason’s heartless abandonment of his lover. Touchstones of Chicano culture are effectively incorporated visually, musically and in reference to foods and other traditions. All of this is well and good.

But, eventually the story must culminate in Medea’s shocking murder of her own children as a means of taking vengeance on the faithless Jason and an expression of her uncontrollable rage. We must believe in the reality of this horror and feel how Medea is driven to this extreme. When the climax arrives, there must be a payoff in catharsis (a dramatic purging of emotional tension).

When Sabina Zuniga Varela as Medea commits her murders, the catharsis fails. Alfaro’s immigrant housewife lacks the dramatic size of Euripides’ exiled queen and Medea’s crime seems out of all proportion to the circumstances of the play. It isn’t believable.

The end result is that rather than raising the Mission experience to the level of Greek tragedy, the tragedy is reduced to a contextually inappropriate celebration of Chicano culture at the expense of its larger themes and greater humanity. It didn’t have to be this way. The concept is good and workable, and one hopes that there will be future, more satisfying, productions.

Bruja continues at the Magic Theatre  through June 24. For further information, click here.

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Bruja by Luis Alfaro, produced by the Magic Theatre. Director: Loretta Greco. Set Design: Andrew Boyce. Costume Design: Alex Jaeger. Lighting Design: Eric Southern. Sound Design: Jake Rodriguez.

Creon: Carlos Aguirre. Vieja: Wilma Bonet. Aegeus: Armando Rodriguez. Jason: Sean San Jose. Meda: Sabina Zuniga Varela. Acan: Daniel Castaneda/Daniel Vigil. Acat: Gavilan Gordon-Chavez/Mason Kreis.

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