Monday, November 13, 2017

Mojada at Portland Center Stage

Friday night, driving home from the theater, I asked Stephen, "What was your favorite part?"

"The very end," he said.

"Great. I can't talk about that on my blog."

Actually, if I knew everyone was familiar with the source material for Mojada, I probably could, but I just can't be sure of that. I'm a stickler for spoilers and generally don't want to read the back of the book or see the trailer of the film. Had I not already known the story of Medea, I probably would have avoided checking it out before seeing this play. In a way, though, I'm glad I knew Medea, because without that in mind, I may have been confused by Mojada's climax. For me, there are a couple elements in the play that make the story wonderfully compelling but that also make it difficult to fully believe what happens in the end. Part of it, too, is simply that I'm viewing this play through the eyes of the modern audience, which tends to be skeptical about classical high tragedy. However, that last moment is pulled off so skillfully, so chillingly, and themes are pulled together so deftly, that you're still left awestruck.

With Mojada, Portland Center Stage continues its tradition of exploring culture through and promoting diversity in theater. Luis Alfaro's play is a modern take on Medea, centered in Los Angeles and following the plight of a family of illegal immigrants from Mexico whose crossing was harrowing and whose past was even more so. For seamstress Medea, her husband Jason, son Acan, and their nurse Tita, one would think finally settling in America would put tragedy and hardship behind them, but one year into their new life, they find that ambition, assimilation, and the elusiveness of the American Dream can hold their own dangers.

I loved the set, with its chain-link-fenced yard and looming, crooked shack of a home. The house seemed some strange, magical combination of structure and painting, both three-dimensional and flat, both real and unreal. It seemed to underscore the fact that for so many, that American Dream is an illusion.

VIVIS (I believe she spells it with all caps) is great as Tita, the nurse who is also a one-woman Greek Chorus, telling the family's story, with plenty of her own commentary, often seeming to voice what the rest of the cast are afraid to say out loud.

My favorite performance was Nancy Rodriguez' Josefina, a quirky food cart merchant desperate to make good, to have a baby, to be American, even though she acknowledges that it's a country full of pain (she insists on being called by her Anglicized name, Josie). Quirky side characters in theater, film, and TV are often overdone to the point of annoyance, but Rodriguez plays her part with a lovely oddness that never goes too far and never becomes old hat. She's delightful. Rodriguez' performance, together with the writing of her character, also allow you to overlook a truth about Josefina so that you are (at least I was) utterly surprised by where her story arc lands.

I couldn't help but view Mojada through the lens of today's politics and today's troubled times. For me, America felt as much a character as all the people in the play - and that character was the bad guy. A bait and switch artist, a fickle lover who only wants you if you're willing to give up who you are. The depiction of the family's trek to America was disturbing and heartbreaking, but the continuation of their story in this country, though more comfortable, seemed to contain an underlying menace that was just as disturbing.

That's not to say that Mojada is nothing but tragedy-tragedy-tragedy. Though that's what the source material warrants, much of Mojada is funny and full of moments of joy. There's something about the backdrop of all that hardship that makes those moments of joy particularly sparkle. I can only hope it's that way in the real world.

Photos are courtesy of Jenny Graham of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

More info on the show is here. It runs through November 26th.

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