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Set In Los Angeles, Greek Tragedy 'Medea' Gets A Modern Twist


A tale of love, betrayal and murder is playing out in the Malibu hills this month. The Greek tragedy "Medea" has been rewritten for the modern age and set in Southern California. It involves a difficult border crossing, an isolated garment worker, her straying husband and, of course, vengeance. NPR's Jason DeRose reports.

JASON DEROSE, BYLINE: Playwright Luis Alfaro has had success planting Greek plays into contemporary U.S. soil with Latino characters. The MacArthur Genius fellow has retold the stories of Electra and Oedipus Rex as "Electricidad" and "Oedipus El Rey." So when he chose to take on border crossing and exile, he knew which Greek tragedy to turn to.

LUIS ALFARO: The ultimate immigrant in exile is Medea.

DEROSE: The 2,400-year-old plot from Euripides tells the story of a sorceress who flees her home country with her lover, the hero Jason, and settles in Corinth, only to lose him to the daughter of the king. The play is now "Mojada: A Medea In Los Angeles." Jason is now Hason, who works in construction.


JUSTIN HUEN: (As Hason) Armida gave me another promotion.


HUEN: (As Hason) Half the day, I'm in the front office with her.

VARELA: (As Medea) In the office with her. You don't think having a lady boss is strange?

HUEN: (As Hason) Nah, she's older than me.

VARELA: (As Medea) You're older than me.

HUEN: (As Jason) It's not the same.

VARELA: (As Medea) It's worse.

HUEN: (As Jason) You have nothing to worry about. We like our women to be girls and then mothers and then grandmothers and finally, saints.

DEROSE: You can guess what happens next - not just betrayal of the relationship, but also a cultural betrayal.

VARELA: And you slowly start seeing the seams rip apart.

DEROSE: Sabina Zuniga Varela plays Medea.

VARELA: "Mojada" really centers on, I believe, the deconstruction of a family after going through trauma, being disconnected from the land and how that affects a structure built on love and trust and history.

DEROSE: Varela wants audiences to understand what it means for many immigrants to leave Mexico for the U.S.

VARELA: People talk about this is a land of opportunity, and we believe this play highlights it's a land of sacrifice. And it really highlights what people give up in order to obtain this dream to have more for their children, to have more for their pride and for their family.

DEROSE: The pain of that sacrifice is, in some ways, eased by those who've come before, which is something playwright Luis Alfaro saw when researching where in LA to set his "Medea." He landed in the immigrant-rich neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

ALFARO: I started to meet a lot of people that were undocumented, working on the streets helping other people who are undocumented on just really basic things, like the kind of ID you needed to have, the kind of jobs you should be watching out for.

DEROSE: Setting the play in Los Angeles, and performing it here as well, means the audience is keenly aware of the advantage people take of undocumented workers - cheap construction labor, cheap sewing labor, cheap yard work.

MARY LOUISE HART: You feel that you're all in it together. You're not really separate psychologically.

DEROSE: Mary Louise Hart is the curator for classical drama at the Getty Villa, where the play is being produced. She says there's power in how audiences respond to these characters - both the admiration of hard work and hope in the future, but also in the darker side of ambition.

HART: Well, Medea was a terrible person. She was bad. She was evil. She was a killer, and she was willing to cross the line to get what she wanted.

DEROSE: But Hart says Luis Alfaro's Medea is one with which contemporary audiences can and should empathize.

HART: And he can make you understand ideas and impulses and needs that you've not only never thought of, but once you realize what they are, you find them repulsive, yet you understand exactly why that is going to happen.

DEROSE: Once Medea and Hason decide to flee Mexico, once they cross the border illegally, once they try to lead American lives, playwright Luis Alfaro says their fates seem sealed. Alfaro hopes seeing the play will help audiences ask themselves difficult questions about the fragility of their own lives.

ALFARO: What does it mean when you feel that you have to sacrifice a child in order to make a better world? What does it feel like to be so wounded that you feel you have to punish somebody by ending a life?

DEROSE: And Alfaro wants "Mojada: A Medea In Los Angeles" to bridge the cultural chasm between new immigrants and longtime residents. In fact, that's one of the reasons he uses the word mojada for his title. It's a derogatory term for a person who illegally crosses the border.

ALFARO: It's hard to get audiences, especially in these very difficult, divisive times that we're in, just for people to see themselves in others. And one way that I challenge my audience to do that is to say we are Greek; we are Chicano; we are American. We are all of those things, but we belong to the world.

DEROSE: Luis Alfaro believes we go to the theater to become better people. And we learn to do that not by shying away from those transgressive feelings - rage, jealousy, vengeance - but rather by confronting them head on. Jason DeRose, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason DeRose is the Western Bureau Chief for NPR News, based at NPR West in Culver City. He edits news coverage from Member station reporters and freelancers in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Alaska and Hawaii. DeRose also edits coverage of religion and LGBTQ issues for the National Desk.