A Classic in East LA

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

For the last decade, the Getty Villa in Malibu has welcomed a theater company to produce an ancient text in their outdoor amphitheater. It's become something of a proving ground: not for the plays -- they hold up just fine -- but for the theater companies themselves.

This year's production -- LA playwright Luis Alfaro's Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles -- is a perfect example. It pairs Mr. Alfaro with Euripedes’ classic text and also Pasadena's Boston Court Theater -- who produced the show and whose co-artistic director, Jessica Kubzansky, serves as director.

The result is both a triumph -- representing the best of the Getty's challenge – and, at the end, sadly . . . a let-down.

But let's start with the positive. Playwright Luis Alfaro has reimagined Medea as a play about immigration. The title Mojada comes from the derogatory slang for an undocumented immigrant. His Medea makes the journey from Mexico to East LA. It's a harrowing odyssey with profound costs for not only her but for her ambitious husband Hason and son Acan. They settle in East LA with Medea taking in piece work sewing and Hason fishing for work outside Home Depot.

While this sounds nothing like what you remember from Medea, Mr. Alfaro's gift is bringing the arch of the classical drama into the present day. His adaptation locates the play squarely in East LA, but once here the story that unfolds, the underlying structure, tracks with classical text. The result gives voice both to his community and the ancients. Now if you're a rigid purist - you'll bristle at these changes . . . but you'll also discover what you hold dear about your Medea.

For those who've never seen the play, it's hard to imagine a more immediate or sympathetic adaptation. Mr. Alfaro's Medea is not an easily dismissed shrew or a crazy, foreign witch. Instead, we see a frightened immigrant trapped in a new country slowly being stripped of her connection to home. With our media filled with heart wrenching images of Syrian refugees and our airwaves clouded with Donald Trump's blustery rhetoric, this Medea is all too timely.

Then, of course, there's the ending. We know the unspeakable act. It should be the play's tragic crescendo. Sadly, director Jessica Kubzansky is not up to the challenge. A moment that begs for the power of stagecraft, here feels unfulfilled. We understand the horror of Medea's final act but we don't feel it.

The magic of this production relies not on the director but on the actors’ commitment and Mr. Alfaro’s script -- and that's more than enough to make the trip to Malibu. If the Getty's challenge is to bring these ancient texts into the present moment, Mr. Alfaro's adaptation shows us without a doubt that these plays still have things to teach us.

Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles plays at the Getty Villa in Malibu through October 3.

To hear last week’s interview with Luis Alfaro and to join the conversation, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Photo: (L-R) Sabina Zuniga Varela, Zilah Mendoza, and VIVIS in A Medea in Los Angeles. (Craig Schwartz)