By Luis Alfaro
Directed by Loretta Greco
Magic Theatre (word premiere)
June 6-July 1, 2012
San Francisco’s Magic Theatre is living up to its name in more ways than one. Its current production, a world premiere of USC professor and MacArthur Foundation fellow Luis Alfaro’s “Bruja,” a re-imagining of Euripides’ “Medea,” is about magic — healing magic, the magic of love and the black magic that kills with no remorse. The production, beautifully acted and impeccably helmed by producing artistic director Loretta Greco, works a kind of theatrical sorcery as well. It is one of the most powerful and creative things I have seen this season.
Alfaro’s “Oedipus el Rey,” produced at the Magic in 2010, was a huge hit, and he has followed it with another Greek myth, this one focusing on a woman and transplanted to San Francisco’s Mission District. The Greeks become Mexicans, some legal, most not, and the woman Medea, common-law wife of Jason of Argonaut fame and infamous killer of children. And what a woman she is! Sensitively portrayed by the lovely Sabina Zuniga Varela, she seems like an innocent, naïve girl, madly in love with her man and doting on her twin sons. But Medea has killed to get across the border and, driven insane by jealousy, she will kill again.
“Bruja” means “witch” in Spanish. It is an epithet, hurled at Medea in the streets. She sees herself as a curandera, a healer who can diagnose a physical or mental disturbance and, often, heal it with a potion or ritual. Hers is a good magic — except when it is not. While Jason works construction, she runs a little side business in the courtyard of their home. While the nanny and maid-of-all-work (in a strong performance by Wilma Bonet), the Nurse character in Euripedes, here simply called la vieja (the old woman), watches the children and keeps the house clean, Medea waves her leaf fronds, brews her potions and takes care of people like Aegeus (Armando Rodriguez), a homesick, affluent young immigrant who longs for a child.
Jason (Sean San José) has bought the American Dream. He just wants to assimilate and make money and he’s not above marrying the boss’ daughter to get ahead. After all, although he and Medea have lived together for more than 10 years, they don’t have a legal contract. The boss, Creon, in the strongest male performance in the show, is played by Carlos Aguirre as a manipulative thug. He seduces Jason with the promise of riches, woos the little boys with television and video games and threatens to turn Medea in to the immigration authorities if she doesn’t give up her family and get out of town. But Medea isn’t going so fast — or quietly. Her revenge, especially in Alfaro’s re-telling, is stunning.
All the action takes place in Andrew Boyce’s tile-inlaid courtyard, with a bubbling fountain to one side and, presumably, the rooms of the house offstage. Lighting, by Eric Southern, and Jake Rodriguez’s sound add much to the dramatic effect. There is humor in the script, as well as horror, mostly provided by the old woman and Aegeus. But it is the witch who holds us in her spell and doesn’t let go until the final blackout.