San Francisco Theater Review: BRUJA (Magic Theatre)

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by Stacy Trevenon on June 10, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


In retelling Euripides’ Medea, Luis Alfaro stirs mythology, mysticism, vengeance, raw passion, the immigrant’s plight, and unfathomable traditions of cultures past into a theatrical crucible with Bruja (meaning a witch or sorceress). The Magic Theatre production has cooked up a colorful Mayan theatrical tapestry with nary a weak thread, creating a powerful, unforgettable and immensely satisfying theatrical experience.

Stacy Trevenon’s San Francsico review of Bruja at Magic TheatreAlfaro brilliantly situates the dark Greek myth within the contemporary immigrant experience, where its stark relevance and undeniable commentary cannot be missed.  The myth of a sorceress wronged to the point of unthinkable vengeance plays out hauntingly well in a world where economic hardship, class exploitation and the bleak underbelly of the American dream are part of everyday life (although we will find that these hardships prove puny against the unleashed powers of ancient healing and darkness).

Displaced from Zamora, Mexico to San Francisco’s Mission District, Medea and Jason and their boys are not Argonauts but immigrants with an uncertain status. Shoehorned into this strange new world, their old ways chafe against new ones and they are ultimately displaced in the mindless pursuit of an elusive American dream. Between fine acting, sterling writing and uncompromisingly clear direction, the resulting chain of events becomes powerfully inevitable. The family, once happy, is catapulted toward only one cataclysmic, riveting ending.

The vision of director Loretta Greco fits seamlessly with Alfaro’s intentions for sense of place. From Medea’s rapt dedication to her potently ancient ritual to a water basin holding blood-red rose petals, close attention has been paid to mythical, historical and cultural touches that clearly define both the ancient Aztec and Mayan atmosphere and the American inner city. All are very fitting to the play and spectators who notice such elements will palpably experience the eerie foreshadowing of the myth’s fulfillment.

Stacy Trevenon’s San Francsico review of Bruja at Magic Theatre

As Medea, Sabina Zuniga Varela goes effortlessly from playful to passionate to crazed and terrifyingly purposeful – yet she never fails to communicate the inner world that makes Medea such an iconographic figure; it was hard for me to tear my eyes away from her. As for Jason, she has a fitting counterpart in Sean San José, who masterfully channels a man who is weak-willed, manipulated and opportunistic. Jason mindlessly pursues what he claims is the best course of action to advance his family, but there is room for doubts around his intentions, and San Jose has the skill to convey this in his performance. It’s gripping to watch a man fall well below the bar as a father – a hapless, pitiable, exploited pawn.

Stacy Trevenon’s San Francsico review of Bruja at Magic Theatre

Daniel Castaneda and Gavilan Gordon-Chavez are the sons Acan and Acat (they alternate with Daniel Vigil and Mason Kries); these authentic young actors are delightfully, buoyantly and heartbreakingly filled with the exuberance of boyhood, one that is sadly caught between the old and the new, and wedged amid their parents’ deadly issues. Wilma Bonet as Vieja, Medea’s acid-tongued but devoted servant, brings strong character and a great deal of cultural color to the production. She does justice to the transmogrification of a Greek chorus, providing plenty of sly humor that is crucial to balancing the story’s dark side, yet her primal wails of disbelief, terror and grief as the inevitable occurs are no less spellbinding.

Stacy Trevenon’s San Francsico review of Bruja at Magic Theatre

Carlos Aguirre is also darkly riveting as Creon, a man with a giant thirst to get what he wants at all costs; Aguirre nails Creon’s calculating, unconscionable, overlord-mentality – powerfully standing as a stark symbol of exploitation to those unfortunates in weaker positions. Armando Rodriguez falls just short of the high-bar of creating a distinct characterization, yet it doesn’t distract as he plays the sickly Aegeus, to whom Medea ministers potions and ritual. By and large, the actors recreate the Greek myth with performances that are authoritative, engaging and a joy to watch. Furthermore, I had no trouble following the occasional use of Spanish because the grounded actors told us everything we need to know through vocal inflections and gestures – as such, the language added to the sense of place while never disrupting the continuity of the play.

Stacy Trevenon’s San Francsico review of Bruja at Magic TheatreThe viewer will be inescapably drawn in as the story rockets from mythology to reality, as Medea goes from beneficent procedures of healing to invoking terrible ancient powers by clapping two giant palm fronds together. Her terrifying final ascent into other realms left me with no doubt of the strength of the old ways as the bedrock of a vastly different culture. As with a camera that pans away from a film’s subject matter to heighten our imagination, the inevitable denouement is handled masterfully: it is because we do not see the children involved with Medea’s horrifying action (there are lighting effects as the boys shriek offstage) that the scene was doubly dreadful.

Costume designer Alex Jaeger beautifully defines each character: Medea’s close-fitting tank tops and flowing skirts in fiery reds and smoky ocher echo the hidden fires smoldering within; Jason’s work clothes seemed to me to look like a near miss to the world he was trying to fit into; Creon’s couture is appropriately pretentious and crisp; and Vieja is in comfy sweats. Eric Southern’s lights and Jake Rodriguez’s sound dovetailed well to echo the scenes, highlighting the plunge of early devoted passions into downfall. The viewer is immediately transported into an inner-city neighborhood upon walking into the theater, where the two sons innocently kicked a soccer ball back-and-forth on Andrew Boyce’s set, which gave the appearance of a courtyard defined by brightly-colored tiles.

This play that so thoroughly examines family is not a play for the family. Nor is it just for serious fans of mythology. This is both for those who relish theater that points out cracks in our social psyche (cracks that we would rather not acknowledge), and for those willing to take a ride into the forbiddingly frightening dark side of the human condition and the human soul.

photos by Jennifer Reiley

Magic Theater Company
Building D at Ft. Mason
ends on June 24 EXTENDED to July 1, 2012
for tickets, call 415.441.8822 or visit Magic Theatre


Bruce Colman June 11, 2012 at 2:10 pm

As a named producer on Bruja, I want to thank this reviewer for getting the show so completely.

Clara Williams June 13, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Congratulations, Sabina, on this really great review!

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