I had never been moved by the plight of the characters in Euripides’s Medea. While I’ve watched the events of the play with a removed awe, their three-dimensional human motivations had always been obscure to me. This has at least partly to do with the form and style of ancient Greek drama itself. To modern theatermakers, “the Greeks” present a conundrum. Their stories are enduring, primal, and profound, but their engines – messengers, choral odes – are a style of work that often doesn’t resonate with our modern audience. In our quick-cut, smash-to culture, a group of people who speak or sing in unison, or a man reciting a four-page, single-spaced monologue describing epic events we cannot see, can be challenging.
Then I met Luis Alfaro’s adaptation of Medea. Luis has been on a long journey to re-examine the Greeks from the lens of the present. The most thrilling thing about this dance with the masters is that he makes visceral and immediate the things that, in the original texts, are often simply described. In one famous instance: from the ancient text of Oedipus Rex we are told that Oedipus unwittingly fell in love with his mother; in his 2010 production of Oedipus el Rey, Luis dramatized the scene of their first meeting, with all its attraction, clash, and mysterious bond. It made that event absolutely compelling, and, after the discovery of the truth, even more completely unbearable because we witnessed the connection happen and became invested in it.
In the case of Medea, the challenge for all but those most familiar with Greek drama and history is the very foreign element of the play’s given circumstances: all of the characters feel unknown to us, not just Medea. We don’t know who Creon is, or Thessaly, or the Argonauts unless we’ve really done some homework. In Luis’s adaptation, a family of Mexicans with a passionate desire to improve their circumstances arrives in East L.A. after a rough border crossing. They find themselves in Boyle Heights, undocumented immigrants, always threatened by their lack of official status, scrambling to make a better life for themselves and their child in the strange new world of Los Angeles. Watching them struggle with all the choices strangers are forced to make when they’re new – when they don’t know the rules, when they live under constant threat of sudden deportation when they’re simply trying to understand the mores of a foreign land – that is a scenario familiar to most of us, and certainly these days immigration is an ongoing conversation in every news cycle.
The adaptation of these given circumstances helps me to understand the humanity of all these characters in a whole new way. Instead of just watching from afar and wondering at their reactions, I empathize with each of their plights. And as the drama unfolds with terror and inevitability, I breathe and suffer with them every step of the way.
Theatre and Social Justice: The Work of Luis Alfaro