Back in the 1990s, Luis Alfaro was given a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
His play, "Bruja," Borderlands Theater's current offering, gives a glimpse into why.
"Bruja" is a rework of Euripides' "Medea," the third and last adaptation Alfaro will do of the Greek tragedies.
Like the others, "Electricidad," based on the Electra story, and "Oedipus El Rey," a rework of "Oedipus," he's woven the story into a contemporary Chicano community.
Medea, as in the original Greek tragedy, has found herself a stranger in a strange land: She has immigrated from Mexico with Jason, the father of her twin boys, to the San Francisco area. There, they struggle to go beyond survival and reach success. Jason is particularly hungry for it.
She is a curandera, a traditional healer, with the power to feel trouble and help heal it.
But she's too close to the trouble in her own home, as Jason becomes a serious yes man to his boss, Creon, who ultimately demands that he leave Medea and marry his daughter.
As we all know, Medea does not take kindly to that, and awful things happen as a result.
"Bruja" blends languages (a bit of Spanish, a bit of Nahuatl, lots of English), images (from Aztec masks to an icon-filled altar) and beautiful language to bring us a very old story and make it seem very now. And very real.
Unfortunately, this Borderlands production, directed by Eva Zorrilla Tessler, did not fulfill the potential of Alfaro's script.
Angelica Rodenbeck, in the difficult role of Medea, is beautiful, sensual and over the top in her portrayal of this strong woman with a fiery passion and an unwavering commitment to revenge. Alfaro's script shows us how the tragedy of killing one's children can happen when pushed on by isolation and betrayal. But Rodenbeck infuses the character with a clichéd sense of drama, which robs us of the story's impact.
In contrast, Robert Encila's Jason was so low key that he barely makes a blip on the stage. It's not like this fine actor to be so bland in a role, especially in a role that doesn't call for it.
Creon, Jason's greedy and demanding boss, is a pivotal role - it is Creon's heartless actions that set off the chain of awful events. But Felipe Hernandez-Bennett, who seemed to have trouble remembering his lines, gave little edge and even less definition to his portrayal of Creon.
Faring better in their roles were Esther Almanzan as Medea's confidante, friend and housekeeper/ cook, and Guillermo Francisco Jones as Aegeus, a man from the Old Country who came to Medea for some of her powerful healing. Both were well-rooted in their characters, giving them a sense of truth.
There were odd directorial choices, such as a freeze motion of the young boys playing a combination of soccer and basketball. Maybe it was to make us think about the pitz ball game the Mayans played, which ended with a human sacrifice to the gods. But all it did was perplex.
Borderlands is a small theater with a big goal: to stage works that speak to border issues and people.
While this Alfaro play does that, the production makes what he has to say weaker than it should be.
• What: Borderlands Theater's production of "Bruja."
• Playwright: Luis Alfaro, based on Euripides' "Medea."
• Director: Eva Zorrilla Tessler.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays and April 13. Continues through April 14.
• Where: The Cabaret Theatre at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave.
• Costs: $19.75-$24, with discounts available.
• Reservations, information: 882-7406.
• Running time: 85 minutes, with no intermission.