Bruja at the Magic Theatre: A Contemporary, Bewitching Take on the Plight of Immigrants

Categories: Review, Theater
Jennifer Reiley_Bruja.jpg
Jennifer Reiley
Sabina Zuniga Varela sees into the beyond as the title character of the Magic Theatre's production.

Luis Alfaro and Loretta Greco have done it again.

The playwright-director collaboration last triumphed at the Magic Theatre in 2010 with Oedipus el Rey, a taut, Will Glickman Award-winning drama that reimagined the Oedipus myth in a contemporary Hispanic community.

Now the pair have reunited for Bruja, which reenvisions Euripides's Medea, also in contemporary Hispanic environs, and the result is every bit as engrossing and poignant as Alfaro's last piece.

As with Euripides's version of the character, Alfaro's Medea (Sabina Zuniga Varela) is an outsider with a dark, mysterious past. She's achieved some status and power in her new community through her skill in magic, but she still can't completely fit in. Also like the Greek character, this Medea has been betrayed by a husband desperate for economic advancement. But here she's an undocumented immigrant on Mission Street. What one translation from the Greek calls Medea's "unsavory arts" finds a contemporary analogue in the art of a curandera, or "healer." She's the kind of person who with potions, touches and prayers can cure the sick, see the future, and bring children to the childless -- hence the play's title, which means "witch." Her husband Jason's (Sean San José) ambition is in this play an immigrant's ambition. He's willing to sacrifice anything for economic security, including his culture and even the very family he claims to want to secure.

It's a story that's at once so primal, so embedded in our culture, that we know it even if we've never encountered it before. It's also up-to-the-minute and political, without having to artificially reach for those qualities. That straddling of epochs helps make for one of the most resonant depictions of the immigrant's plight in our contemporary theater.

There isn't a moment in Alfaro's razor-sharp storytelling that doesn't absolutely need to be there. He shows much of what Euripides merely tells, and he's done a modern audience much service by combining many characters -- a nurse, a tutor, the chorus -- into one: Vieja (Wilma Bonet). His tale is simply structured: A seed of marital doubt gradually but inexorably grows into a sickening revelation, one that we at once yearn to see and cannot bear to look at. Once exposed, it blots the light and life out of a seemingly happy home and morphs accessible, likable characters into monsters.

To this forward-careening text Greco marries a bold and mystic design scheme. Eric Southern's lights ably bridge time gaps and, shining at diagonals from side doors, even suggest how characters are on the margins -- or on the run. Coupled with Jake Rodriguez's haunting sound design, the lights Medea's curandera practice seem eminently real and potent.

Greco has assembled a sterling cast. Varela as the title character effects a powerful transformation from sweet, unassuming wife to a true bruja, one who maintains a darkness inside to remind herself "of all that [she is] capable of." Her rage is righteous and contagious, her victimization deplorable and humiliating. Bonet, reliable as ever as Vieja, finds equal measures of comedy and pathos in a role that has a little more depth than the other older Hispanic servants she often gets cast as. She has the ease of a stand-up, communing directly with the audience over her gripes (her favorite of which is the San Francisco hills), and, with watchful, doleful eyes, the authority of a figure who though "of another time" outlives all. José as Jason and Carlos Aguirre as Jason's boss Creon make sympathetic roles that could be purely ghastly.

Some choices, however, irked. The wailing at the play's end -- what Aristotle called the "scene of suffering" -- felt false, as if characters had switched from genuine tragedy to spoof with shouts of "Noooo!" More troublingly, it's not entirely clear why this Medea needs to kill her own children -- the very deed she's most famous for. Supposedly, she's trying to hurt her husband even more deeply than his own murder would. But the hate Medea expresses for her boys in the original, along with statements like, "They have to die," is largely absent here, making the murder incongruous. What's more, Varela's Medea is powerful and vengeful enough to kill not her sons but her oppressors. That someone else dies instead almost seems like the wrong ending, but it's wrong that the way Cordelia's murder in King Lear is wrong: though the narrative might not justify it, it elevates the story from cut-and-dry tragedy to an incomprehensible, horrific myth.

Yet these are but quibbles with Alfaro's play. Bruja is one of the most vital and significant dramas to grace our stages this year, giving much force to the notion that, 2400 years later, there remains much to be mined from the first dramas in the Western canon. Let's hope this second collaboration between Alfaro and Greco is not their last.

Bruja continues through June 24 at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason, Building D, San Francisco. Admission is $22 - $62.


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