The Winner of Our Discontent

In 431 B.C., Euripides' Medea took last place in an annual festival of plays held in honor of the god Dionysus. Although the dramatist usually took top honors in this contest, the judges were loath to give high marks to a play in which a mother kills her own children.

In 1995, playwright Carlos Morton's La Malinche, based on the Greek myth of Medea, took first prize in Arizona Theatre Company's National Hispanic Playwriting Contest. If times have changed regarding what makes for prize-winning theater, Morton's tragic tale sets out to remind us that other things--like the futility of attempting to change history and the objectification of women--haven't changed at all. Nor have ATC's lackluster stagings of its semiannual prize-winning plays. The world premiere of La Malinche is hardly a triumph.

La Malinche is an adaptation of Medea fused with the legend of conquistador Hernan Cortez and his Mayan mistress, Dona Marina. The stories are eerily similar: In Euripides' tale, Medea discovers that her Greek lover, Jason, plans to marry a Greek princess. Medea spoils the wedding ceremony, poisons the bride and, in a final act of desperation, murders the children she bore to Jason. She literally leaves Jason in the dust, flying off in a gold chariot drawn by dragons.

Although La Malinche's story is no more cheerful, it isn't as colorful or mystical in Morton's longish one-act. At the time of Cortez's conquest of Mexico, he employed a translator, Dona Marina (La Malinche), a young Aztec woman who helped him overthrow her own people and who eventually bore him two children. While the historical Cortez did abandon La Malinche to marry a Spanish woman who died shortly after the wedding, the woman was not poisoned at her nuptials by her husband's mistress. La Malinche did not vow revenge, and Cortez (who claimed his lover's language skills were his greatest aid in the Conquest) gifted her with a large parcel of land, where she lived with her husband until her death in 1540.

Medea has been adapted before--most notably by Helen Hoover in the novel The Dawn Palace, and most outrageously by playwright Charles Ludlam--but hasn't previously been grafted onto historical legend. Morton's tale is a crafty commentary on the age-old tradition of misogyny and, in the true tragic tradition, the futility of attempting to alter the inevitable (in this case, the course of history). In the traditional stories of both Medea and La Malinche, the women assist their men in overtaking their native lands; both give birth to a pair of sons; and both women are later betrayed and abandoned by the men they helped. Morton has fused the two women into a single martyr, a symbol of the exploitation of women. His portrayal of La Malinche as a warrior princess with the strength of a Greek goddess also elevates her from a historical footnote: In Mexican folklore, she is mostly considered a traitor to her people; here, she is both more sympathetic (a faithful servant manipulated by a ruthless man) and more powerful (she runs with witches and can kill a bride simply by giving her a hat).

It's too bad that all those ambitious concepts and interesting angles are lost in the play's unfortunate staging. La Malinche is so overdressed with billowing banks of fog and stacks of set pieces spiraling out of the sky that it resembles a Greco-Spanish dream sequence from an old MGM musical. A simpler staging would have showcased Morton's unpretentious fusion of myth and history, but this production is overcome by heavy costuming and scene-stealing lighting and sound tricks.

A mishmash of mannered performances doesn't help. Although Dawnnie Mercado is quite good in the title role, most of the players surrounding her are lost to the special effects and massive settings. As Cortez, Christopher Michael Bauer mumbles most of his lines, and Yolande Bavan draws laughs in the somber role of La Llorona, a witch in a giant birdlike costume. Abel Lopez's stiff, uninspired direction makes for a one-act that plays like two.

This isn't the first time ATC has presented a lifeless staging of a show in its unofficial "new play" slot. Two years ago, the company's workshop of The Old Matador (an entry in ATC's Genesis New Play Reading Series) limped across the Herberger Theater Center stage, marking one of the few times this usually fine company has presented an inferior production. ATC's commitment to showcasing new works is commendable. But it seems that, in terms of entertainment value, our state theater would do better to take more care in staging its prize winners.

Arizona Theatre Company's production of La Malinche continues through Saturday, February 22, in Center Stage at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe. For more details, see Pic Hits.