Arts Editor Riva Weinstein attended the Friday night showing of the CU Players’ The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea. She gives her thoughts below.
Why do Medea? That is the question asked by Rylee Carrillo-Waggoner (CC ’19) in her director’s note for The Hungry Woman. Why reopen this wound of an ancient tragedy, in which “the most innocent come out the most hurt?” What does this story about an Ancient Greek exile, a mother who murders her own children, have to tell us about the world as it is today?
Cherríe Moraga’s play is the salt in this ancient wound. Combining the tragedy of Medea with stories from Mexican folklore and Aztec mythology, The Hungry Woman is a complicated, deeply vulnerable, painful and precarious narrative that speaks to a variety of Latinx, Native American and queer experiences.
Taking place in an alternate North America, with nations separated along racial lines, Medea (Duda Penteado, CC ’21) is an exile from the Latinx and Native American nation of Aztlán. Medea was exiled, along with her son Chac-Mool (Mario Garcia, SEAS ’21) and her girlfriend Luna (Avegail Marie, CC ’19), for being a lesbian. They live in with other queer exiles in a “ghetto” in what was once Phoenix.
Medea lives in fear that her husband Jasón (Taylor Faires Cordova BC ’19), an important figure in Aztlán, will return to take her son as his heir. Her worst fears come true when Chac-Mool wishes to return to Aztlán. As her relationship with Luna becomes more and more strained, and her fear of losing her son to the misogynistic patriarchy grows, Medea does the unthinkable – fulfilling the ancient and tragic conclusion of her myth.
Scenes from Medea’s past are presented out of order, interspersed with scenes of her in the present, living in a prison psychiatric ward. Sprinkled among them are surreal scenes, conversations between the main characters and the four Cihuateteo spirits (played by Taylor Faires Cordova, Diana Carranza SEAS ‘21, Julieth Sanchez SEAS ’22, and Shaundin Jones CC ‘20) who torment and interrogate them. It is a pity that CUP was legally prevented from changing Moraga’s script because the plot was confusing enough to impede audience engagement.
If nothing else in The Hungry Woman had been successful, Duda Penteado would have carried this play through her performance alone. Her Medea was vulnerable, vicious, tender, and disturbing – a dizzying range of personas, navigated as deftly and dangerously as a skater who knows the pond is thawing. Her tensions with Luna and Jasón are skin-crawlingly electric. Medea does not become more or less sympathetic throughout the play, only more complicated, more volatile, and older. It was Penteado’s performance at the end of the play that moved me the most. She is a portrait of an exiled, abandoned, mad old woman, the shell of a warrior gazing at the moon, preparing at last to follow her son.
Avegail Marie and Mario Garcia performed well as Luna and Chac-Mool, though Cihuateteo North was certainly wrong in saying that this is Chac Mool’s play: it is Medea’s gravity in which they both orbit, Medea to whom they always return. Marie had the most sympathetic character in Luna, a lesbian migrant sculptor who navigates a tumultuous seven-year relationship with the woman she cannot seem to escape from. Garcia skillfully plays up the contradictions inherent in Chac-Mool: a boy at the catastrophic juncture between child and adult, as desperate for his homeland as he is for his mother’s blessing to return to it. He makes the audience dread his death.
The four Cihuahuateos were an unearthly chorus, in their face paint and fantastic feather headdresses (courtesy of costume designer Lexis Rangell-Onweugbuzia, CC ’22). Their anguished cries of ¡Ay, mi hijo! – from the myth of the wailing mother, La Llorona – sent shivers down the audience’s spines. And no less frightening was their silent, constant gaze, never absent throughout the play. There is no moment of privacy for Medea. Her past, her heritage bears on her, bringing with it the ancient and unmitigated grief of exile.
Adding to the feeling of constant observation is a spectacular set piece by Maya Lin-Bronner (CC ’19), representing Coatlicue, the primordial Aztec goddess of creation and destruction. Lit by internal lights and festooned with six stuffed hands holding six hearts, the piece is at once an altarpiece and a presence, the representation and manifestation of Medea’s creator – and thus Medea, who gives birth to herself. The mirror is also a constant presence, a source of anxiety for both Medea and Chac-Mool. The sensitive and unexpected lighting decisions (from designer Rowan Kim, GS ’20) add to the emotional discord of the plot, forcing the characters, when they least desire it, to be seen by each other.
The Hungry Woman is not an easy play to watch. It probes deep into modern wounds. The “exiles,” the Medeas of today are the people dealing with the legacies of colonialism and patriarchy, trying to pick up the pieces of a homeland from their shattered pasts. CUP’s production did not shy away from the ontological violence in Moraga’s play. It presses our noses in, as Medea put it, to “smell my children’s death.” It replicates the sense of horror and agony that Ancient Greek theatergoers must have felt at the first production of Euripides’ Medea.
There is not much optimism in this play. But there is, at least, a pattern: a synchronization between the Greek, Mexican and Aztec myths, the Latinx and Native American and queer stories, superimposed over each other like films, crying out in familiar voices. There is both strength and comfort in this lining-up of griefs.
Or as Chac-Mool puts it, and dramaturg Emma Gometz (CC ’21) quotes in the program: “In the center of pain, there is always a prayer. A prayer where you get up to leave and a whole army of people are there to carry you away. You aren’t alone anymore.”
Photo via Vivian Mellon Snyder