Cherrie Moraga's The Hungry Woman debuted on the ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts' mainstage last weekend. The play, set in a post-Revolutionary, futuristic Phoenix, is a modernized retelling of the tragedy of Medea. Native and Mexican themes and folklore are integrated into the story, which also explores issues of homophobia and gender inequality. While the play presented an interesting perspective and was certainly thought-provoking, many elements of this particular production failed to reinforce the text.
The Phoenix of The Hungry Woman is very different from the Phoenix we know. A sort of shanty town for gays and lesbians, the city exists on the border of two newly created territories, each with a dominant ethnic group. Medea, her lover Luna, and her son have been exiled from their country of origin as a result of the nation's prevailing homophobic ideology.
Moraga's Medea is a tequila-swigging lady with a whole lot to lament. Her husband, Jasón, has taken a new wife in her old country. He controls Medea's land, and when he finds out that his new wife is infertile, he attempts to regain custody of Medea's son. Medea goes completely crazy, obviously, and kills her son so Jasón can't have him.
Director Dora Arreola was brought on as a guest artist at ASU for this production. She is best known for her work as the artistic director of Mujeres en Ritual Danza Teatro. Her experience with dance and movement came across clearly in the play, and was one of the most enjoyable elements of the production. Each character had a well-honed physicality. A chorus of "Chihuateos" (generically tribal personas, clad in feathered masks and beaded moccasins) introduced each act and guided the narrative. They also performed choreographed story-dances which interspliced the folkloric elements into the tragedy.
The set was fairly minimal, but the director made great use of its simplicity. Several mobile units allowed for the play's frequent scenic changes -- from the home of Medea and Luna, to an insane asylum, to a border patrol holding cell, to a lesbian bar.
While the movement and set seemed seamlessly orchestrated, the same cannot be said of the acting. The first act of the play was awkward, to say the least. At times it seemed as though the actors were fumbling for lines, or reciting what they were supposed to say rather than being aware of the moment. A character would stop talking when they knew they were supposed to be interrupted by another character, leading to awkward pauses that easily could have been remedied with basic improvisation. At times, the actors relied on the tried-and-true-but-super-boring method of screeching to convey emotion. With a little bit more work, they may hit a smoother and more subtle stride.
Adriana Ramos, who played Medea, did a pretty good job in her role. She managed to convey both insecurity and sensuality, which were necessary to garner sympathy with the audience. The chemistry between Medea and Luna (played by Amy Arcega) started off a little clunky, but seemed to improve throughout the course of the play. Arcega's performance was also good, but maybe a bit reliant on some lesbian stereotypes. What would have been interesting to see between them was more playfulness, more nuance to their relationship. This is the coupling that ultimately led to Medea's exile; it needed to be made more clear to the audience why this love was so great to begin with.
Medea's relationship with her 13-year-old son Chac-Mool (played by Jorge Sȧnchez-Barceló) fell into a similar pattern: the first act was strained, the second polished. Sȧnchez-Barceló was the sweet, goofy foil to everyone else's grumpy resentfulness. His relationship with his mother at the start of his defiant teenage years came across as both legitimate and tender.
The chorus of Chihuateos filled several small roles, mostly authority figures (a nurse in a psychiatric ward, a prison guard, a border patrol officer). The intention may have been to give these secondary characters a similar cold, emotionless identity to contrast against the rest of the highly volatile main characters. This didn't really work. As a group, the Chihuateos lacked the necessary vocal support to give strength to an authority figure. Their sternness came across more shrieky than solemn, their stoicism was mostly awkward and also a little boring.
Mama Sal, Medea's grandmother, must be mentioned. Played by Elizabeth Torres-Reissig, she was the epitome of an abuelita in voice and action. She provided a kind and comedic relief from the rest of the baby-daddy drama.
There were several moments in the script that could have also served as a gentle comedic break from the tragedy, but these were largely glossed over. Audience members who were familiar with the play seemed to pick up on these subtle jokes; for first-time viewers, it was nearly impossible to pick them out. The cast could have fine-tuned these moments a little better, and used them to balance out the screaming and moaning and general angst.
As a whole, the cast could use a bit of dialogue refinement and could work on conveying emotion with more subtlety. That being said, The Hungry Woman was at the very least interesting. It was thought-provoking in the way that all hypothetical, futuristic works are, and needs to be appreciated for that.