Last summer at Victory Gardens, Luis Alfaro recast Oedipus Rex as Oedipus el Rey, set in South Central Los Angeles gang life. His Electricidad, seen in 2004 at the Goodman, similarly set Electra in California gangland.
Alfaro's newest modernized Greek drama, Mojada, turns Euripides' Medea and Jason into undocumented Mexican immigrants trying to make a life in Pilsen, on Chicago's Near South Side. Gangs appear here only tangentially, as something Medea must keep her son, Acan, away from. The driving conflict here is one that touches on a more mundane discord for some immigrants, though it's heightened in Mojada to achieve epic tragedy: the "old ways" vs. the modern world, tradition vs. assimilation.
Though Jason (Juan Francisco Villa) doesn't go near organized crime, it's nonetheless his unquenchable ambition—his all-American desire for ever "more"—that corrupts his family's chance at happiness, with a helping hand from the ever-rising price of the American Dream. Jason goes to work for Armida (Sandra Marquez, ice cold in Alfaro's female version of King Creon), a fellow Mexican emigré who's become a wealthy re-developer of neighborhoods like Pilsen.
Medea (Sandra Delgado), who's so unnerved by her new surroundings she declines to leave the confines of her Pilsen backyard, makes some money with her remarkable skill as a seamstress, or costurera. Though Jason tries to persuade her that Armida is "one of us—our gente," Medea turns out to have good reasons to mistrust her husband's new boss, as does Medea's loyal servant Tita (Socorro Santiago, mesmerizing as a one-woman Greek chorus).
Alfaro's new rendering of the tale spends most of its first act laying foundations while keeping our attention with a few sharp jokes and some ominous foreshadowing; it isn't until a harrowingly staged, Santiago-narrated flashback to the family's journey across the border that Mojada—roughly translated, Spanish for "wetback"—really grabs you by the guts, with artful assists from Heather Gilbert's lighting design, Mikhail Fiksel's careful soundscape and Liviu Pasare's evocative projections.
From there, as Medea loses Jason to Armida in larger and larger slices, Alfaro and director Chay Yew seem to condemn both old world and new for their unforgiving exclusivity. Tradition can be toxic, Mojada says, but the promise of the new comes with its own problems. You can't buy happiness in Chicago, as it's put by Medea's fellow immigrant neighbor Josephina (Charin Alvarez as Alfaro's optimistic stand-in for King Aegeus); you have to pay for it. "There's a big difference."
There's a slight stumble in the execution of Medea's vengeance on her tormentors, in that the playwright and director fall back on introducing magic into their realism far too late in the game. Still, perhaps the hardest sell in modernizing Medea is the title character's ultimate revenge upon the husband who spurned her. Here, impressively, Alfaro, Yew and the ever more astonishing Delgado find the proper build to make us almost empathize with her horrific act.