MOTHER AND SON, IN HAPPIER TIMES Benjamin Luis McCracken and Sabina Zúñiga Varela in “Mojada” at the Public Theater. In background: Socorro Santiago.
SOMETIMES I DELIBERATELY GO to a performance cold — with no advance research. Sometimes I just don’t get around to doing the reading. This time I couldn’t even remember the title of the play.
“Mojada” (it means “wet” and seems to be a reference to the insult “wetback”) was not a word I remembered from my high school Spanish. So I kept thinking it was Mojito (a word I do remember, from my many visits to Mexican restaurant bars). And it took me quite a while to realize that this compelling one-act by Luis Alfaro was an adaptation of Medea.
HONEY, YOU NEED TO GET OUT MORE Alex Hernandez as Jason, with Varela.
Sure, the lead character (played by Sabina Zúñiga Varela) was named Medea, pronounced meh-DEH-ah. But I absolutely did not recognize the name of her husband-equivalent (Alex Hernandez), which I heard as yah-ZONE. That’s Jason. And Medea has only one child, not two — a variation on the original plot, based on a Greek myth, and written and staged by Euripides in Athens around 450 B.C.
In this version, there is no doubt that the audience’s sympathies are with Medea, a young, beautiful brunette who communes with nature or the gods or some higher spiritual level by dancing gracefully with giant palm fronds. The whole family immigrated to the United States, specifically to New York City. Jason has gone out and found a fairly lucrative job, the grandmotherly character (Socorro Santiago) appears comfortable, and the little boy (Benjamin Luis McCracken) seems fine, but Medea is traumatized by the journey — understandably, because she was raped en route — and basically never leaves the house. But she pulls her own weight, working at home (in the backyard) as a seamstress.
CERVEZA AFUERA Pilar (Ada Maris, center), Jason’s boss, comes over for a friendly dinner. Too friendly.
The villain is the other woman, Pilar (Ada Maris), a Latina who now dresses and thinks like a Norteamericana, basking in her savvy and the wealth she inherited from her deceased Jewish husband. At first she seems just to be Jason’s boss, but they’re much closer; some things haven’t changed much between ancient Greece and 21st-century Queens. The story is a thoroughly contemporary adaptation, so it’s amusing to see that one of Euripides’ very specific plot points (a poisoned dress) works just as well here and now. So do the overwhelming emotions connected with murder, abandonment and casual betrayal.
Ben Brantley, reviewing the production in The New York Times, had some positive things to say but concluded that the tragedy wasn’t fully felt. Or maybe it was, in another way. As Brantley wrote, the play is “at its most entertaining as an evocation of an exhaustingly ambitious nation in which the failure to be self-serving and self-promoting is a cardinal sin.”
Vanessa Aspillaga offers some solid comic relief as their neighbor, Luisa, a street cart vendor who loves to gab and now calls herself Lulu. And the older character, Tita (Socorro Santiago), brings her own special charm to the WTF attitude of the modern senior citizen. Someone asks why she doesn’t like New York. She shrugs: “At my age, I don’t have to.”
“Mojada,” Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes (no intermission). Limited run. Closes on Aug. 18.
THEY LOVE ME OVER THERE Jonathan Cake as the title character, a war hero who turns to politics and sees his approval ratings plummet, in “Coriolanus.”
FIRST, I SHOULD TELL you that The New York Times loved it. Ben Brantley wrote, among other things, “This ‘Coriolanus’ is the most purely entertaining one I’ve seen.” And I can’t claim that he and I “must not have seen the same play” — because we were there on the same night. And over the years, I’ve agreed with Ben 95 percent of the time.
Still. “Coriolanus,” in general, is not one of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. And with a few notable exceptions, this production — although I am never unhappy to be in the Delacorte Theater at a Shakespeare in the Park production on a summer night — doesn’t do much to alter that standing.
BATTLE GEAR A scene from “Coriolanus” at the Delacorte Theater.
I don’t know whether to blame the playwright, the director (Daniel Sullivan, who is usually pretty brilliant) or the cast, but I was never sure whether Coriolanus was a good guy or not. I could never decide whether to sympathize or disdain.
Maybe that complexity was the point, but if so, it needs sharper edges. The title character (Jonathan Cake), whose name at first is simply Caius Martius, is a general who becomes a huge war hero and is rewarded with the name Coriolanus and growing public opinion that he should go into politics. If I heard correctly, people were always asking him to show off his wounds.
Next thing you know, he’s consul. And then nobody’s happy with anything he does, and by the beginning of Act II he’s in exile. He knows he’s being a disappointing son (“My mother, I’ll do well yet!” he vows before leaving town).
KICK ME, KATE! Coriolanus (Cake) and Volumnia (Kate Burton) have an intense mother-and-son chat.
Act II is significantly better than Act I. And Kate Burton, playing the protagonist’s ambitious mother, Volumnia, is significantly better than most of the play. “I would have had you put your power well on,” she tells her son, “before you had worn it out.”
Moms say the darndest things.
I was also very taken with Teagle F. Bougere’s Meninius, a character who serves as a father figure to Coriolanus. He’s always talking about how noble Coriolanus is, but he’s unfortunately blunt when he speaks to others. He begins one comment with the observation “You two are old.” But his best line has to be “Live long, and may your misery increase with your age.”
The set makes up for a lot. Granted, it looks as if an ancient fortress has been constructed of aluminum siding (which was actually invented in the 20th century), but the gifted Beowulf Boritt’s styling makes it work. At times, characters march through what seem to be the town gates. At others, the set splits in two – with the roofs crowded with people.
There’s a lot of talk about grain. Apparently, the rich people have been hoarding it while the poor people starve. And not long after Coriolanus has been run out of town, they decide, “We were wrong to banish him.” Maybe the real villain in this tragedy is the populace.
“Coriolanus,” Delacorte Theater, Central Park, publictheater.org. Closes on Aug. 11.