Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre continues his recent spate of Latino-themed adaptations of classic Greek plays. Following Oedipus el Rey, which premiered at the Magic in 2010, Bruja takes on the Medea story, which proves remarkably relevant to contemporary Latino/Latina experience.
With slight shifts in location and tone, the play imports the story to San Francisco, where Jason (Sean San José) and Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) have immigrated with their two sons—Acan (Daniel Castaneda) and Acat (Gavilan Gordon-Chavez)—from Michoacán, Mexico, making their way up the west coast through California.
As illegal immigrants looking for a better life, the couple and Medea’s old servant, Vieja (the wonderful Wilma Bonet), settle uneasily in a place owned by Creon (Carlos Aguirre), the contractor with whom Jason finds work and whose favor he curries. As he falls prey to the older man’s machinations and is blinded by his own dreams of power and wealth, Jason betrays his commitment to Medea, which unleashes her righteous anger and the devastation that always follows in this story of disinheritance, jealousy, and matricide.
In Alfaro’s treatment, the overlay of Chicano immigration and assimilation brings the story resonant new themes. Medea is a curandera, a healer with mystical powers and insight. As the play opens, she stands center stage, her arms extended with palm fronds, performing a ritual that exemplifies her connection with the earth and her spiritual power. Played by Zuniga Varela as an earthy, sexual, desirous young woman, Medea fiercely expresses her passions and her knowledge.
Vieja protects her charge, whom she raised with devotion, intending to throw herself in Medea’s grave should the girl die first. Vieja’s commitment keeps her hovering nearby and allows Alfaro to use her as his Greek chorus, commenting on the action in direct and sometimes humorous address to the audience. Bonet’s Vieja is part stand-up, part matriarch and our conduit to Chicano/a culture. In a play peppered with Spanish and Spanglish, she’s a translator and guide. Bonet’s solid, knowing presence and her deft physical comedy (she performed for many years with the San Francisco Mime Troupe) grounds the spectators’ reactions as events unfold.
Jason reeks of desperation to assimilate into American culture. He insists his sons call him “Dad” instead of “Papi,” making fun of what he considers its feminine Spanish inflections compared to the manly mono-syllables of the English. He’s entranced by Creon’s power and influence, and sees him as a “door” into the world for which he longs.
His hubris is to believe he can play games with impunity, that the ends justify the means of his collusion. But when he moves into Creon’s home and marries his daughter, Medea’s wrath dismantles his plans and leaves him in bloody ruin.
Alfaro’s adaptation easily and persuasively superimposes Chicano analogies over the Greek story. Medea has killed her devious twin brother, leaving his body behind in Machoacán and fleeing across the U.S. border with Jason. She owns her father’s land in Mexico, a deed of contention that Creon insists she pass to him. When she refuses to become party to Jason’s dealings with the corrupt businessman, Creon makes her a pariah in the community. If once she was a healer, she quickly becomes known as a witch (bruja in Spanish).
The faithful Aegeus (Armando Rodriguez), who comes to Medea to be healed and for help making his wife fertile, reports on Medea’s diminishing standing and offers her shelter after she’s thrown out of her home. But no one can stand in the way of Medea’s deadly revenge.
Medea is nothing if not melodramatic and Alfaro’s Bruja treads close to its inevitable histrionics. But Zuniga Varela’s simple, direct performance—all earnest sincerity before she reaches her necessary murderous rage—and San José’s believable regret as Jason keep the production from overstatement. While their chemistry isn’t as palpable as it might be, Alfaro’s text and Loretta Greco’s direction focus on Medea’s sensuality and desire, whether or not it’s reciprocated.
Medea’s status as what Creon calls a “ghost”—an undocumented immigrant without state or family rights, since she and Jason aren’t married—makes her powerlessness poignant and resonant, as Creon strips her of her home and her partner. When he insists that she give Jason his sons, and Jason rationalizes that they’ll inherit Creon’s wealth if he adopts the boys, Medea plays the only card left in her hand. She ends Jason’s blood line and accepts her own tragic fate.
Zuniga Varela’s restrained performance makes Medea’s plight sympathetic instead of anathema. She’s a rather reactive heroine, making her choices according to those made against her. In the style of the Greek original, much of the action is narrated by Vieja or by Aegeus.
Bonet is particularly good as the bearer of bad news, describing how Medea’s curse turned the snake-skin dress she presented to Jason’s new wife into a nest of live reptiles that squeezed her rival to death and caused Creon’s demise. And although Medea kills her boys offstage, Greco directs her first to chase each of them down, wielding a medieval-looking sword as a tangible embodiment of her fury.
Clear from Alfaro’s intelligent adaptation and Greco’s sensitive direction is how well the story adapts to describe the impossible situation of Chicano immigrants who travel at great personal cost across the border to better their lives, only to land in situations in which the American Dream dangles like unreachable fruit. Adopting American ways—including the machismo of capitalist cowboys out to make a buck through any available means—becomes a devil’s bargain that requires giving up their ethnicity, culture, and faith, and that ultimately leaves them stranded and as morally bankrupt as the country they long to adopt.
Alfaro’s playwrighting embellishes a career in which he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award and for many years toured in autobiographical solo shows. While I miss the incisive social commentary of his queer Chicano memoir performances and his considerable magnetism as a performer, it’s wonderful to see him reimagining the classics through Chicano and feminist eyes (which puts him in conversation with Cheríe Moraga, among others). He’s extending his canon in welcome, generative directions.
The Feminist Spectator
Bruja, the Magic Theatre, San Francisco through June 24.