Aside from living in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen, Sandra Delgado's Medea has other differences from the infamously exotic, erotic and murderous Euripidean figure who both seduced and terrified Athenian males in the fifth century B.C. The (anti-?) heroine of playwright Luis Alfaro's zesty new play "Mojada" is a quiet Mexican seamstress, highly prized for her sorcery with fabric but reluctant to leave her neighborhood even for a trip to Navy Pier, lest her illegal status be discovered and she be sent back to crawl thirstily across the Arizona desert.
But beneath this gentle dressmaker's wound-tight facade beats a fevered heart. This Medea has a vulnerable kid, just like the foreigner in the Greek tragedy, who had two sons. Our Pilsen Medea also has her own Jason (Juan Francisco Villa), who made the great trek with her from her home village in Mexico but who now has his eye set on Armida (Sandra Marquez), who might not be a royal daughter but who owns a lot of buildings in Little Village and wears suits from Ann Taylor. Like his classical namesake, this Jason tells his former lover, the lover who gave up so much for him, that he is looking elsewhere mostly to improve the kid's prospects in a town where clout is all.
Medea is, shall we say, displeased.
Luckily, she has the sound of the "L" tracks, which in director Chay Yew's lively production slice through the quiet Pilsen streets like a screeching metallic monster, to cover up what nasty doings might be on her mind.
Alfaro, whose play premiered Monday night at Victory Gardens Theater, has made something of a specialty of adapting Greek tragedies to the experience of Latinos in America, delving deep into these great dramas' fascinations with wars against neighboring lands, the clash of expediency with the searing experiences of youth, and the pain created by the forging and reforging of national identity. But while his "Oedipus El Rey," a superb retelling of the story of Sophocles' " Oedipus the King," was set in the Los Angeles barrio, this adaptation of "Medea," itself a new version of a prior Alfaro play with a different Americanized setting (titled "Bruja"), is as local as it gets. Jason has an interest in borrowing tricks from Rahm Emanuel, the unseen Creon of this particular yarn.
If you know the original tragedy well, you'll be struck by how well Alfaro has adapted the various plot points. He's collapsed the chorus into a single figure, a wise old truth teller named Tita (Socorro Santiago) who also has come to Chicago from Mexico but has never taken to her new home. "If I could, I'd go back," she says, "but there's only so many trips one can make in a lifetime." And he's fused the popular Greek device of the outside visitor into Josefina (Charin Alvarez), who sells her baked goods on the streets of Pilsen.
In the original, of course, Jason is an Athenian who strays from home and Medea a foreigner, whereas in this version, they're both immigrants. Then again, immigrants assimilate at different rates, which can become a sharp division between lovers and families. That's the flashpoint here: Jason wants to adopt Chicago's values; Medea has deeper loyalties on her mind.
One of the dangers with tragic experimentation is that it can be dull or merely academic. Not here. "Mojada" is unpretentious and entertaining. One of the perennial challenges in modernizing Greek tragedy is the difficulty of fusing the epic quality of classic dramas with the relative smallness of modern life without exploding believability. Alfaro understands that humor can act as a kind of escape valve. He uses that trick well, even to the point of having Tita compare the lives she is watching unravel to the events on a Spanish-language soap opera. Not only is the play about crossing borders, but Alfaro knows how to walk that line between thunderous naturalism and absurdist pulp, being as our lives often seem composed of both.
Delgado, something of a muse for Alfaro, turns in one of the best performances of her busy career, nicely avoiding the usual Medea cliches in favor of a low-key mix of latent sensuality and taciturn determination, albeit with a beast within. Villa could display more persuasive powers in spots — he's a tad neutral, given his character's fiendish manipulations — but it's clear that Yew and Alfaro want his deeds to be credible. Alas, Marquez is stuck with a cliched power-woman — her overly obvious character is by far the weakest link in this script and production — but she is aptly annoying. Still, that was a missed opportunity.
Nonetheless, Medea is the star of the show and her angst is more than enough to instill in a Chicago audience (people were gripped Monday) some reasonable approximation of tragic pity and fear.
You don't normally think of tragedy as local, of course. But back in ancient Athens, its horrors were right around the corner, and so it goes here, with Josefina fighting off the Anglo hipsters moving into Halsted Street condos, Jason wanting to learn the Chicago Way, and Medea making sure Pilsen won't ever be quite the same.
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
Running time: 2 hours,
Tickets: $20-$50 at 773-871-3000 or victorygardens.org