'The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea' queers classic Greek tragedy

(Photo by Tim Trumble/Courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts) (Photo by Tim Trumble/Courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts)

A group of queer revolutionaries in post-apocalyptic Phoenix are at the forefront of “The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea,” but we solved the queer problem by legalizing gay marriage, right? Wrong.

Cherríe Moraga’s politically charged play, put on by the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at the Lyceum Theatre on the Tempe campus, would answer with a definite "no." Things are far more complicated.

“The Hungry Woman,” on one level, is a re-imagining of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy, “Medea” (you know, the one where the leading lady goes a bit cuckoo and kills her son as an act of revenge against her unfaithful husband). Despite premiering over two thousand years ago (431 B.C., to be precise), "Medea" is still an incredibly powerful myth, tingling with ferocity and passion.

Moraga’s reimagining casts the story in a whole new light, adding a profound depth to the myth by tangling Euripides’ "Medea" in a web of modern discourses on sexuality and ethnicity.

“It gives thunderous voice to identities largely ignored or silenced by dominant cultures and institutional structures. It’s a dangerous play; a play of terrible beauty. And a provocative way to open our season,” Lance Gharavi, associate professor and assistant director for the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, said in an ASU News story.

The identities and topics infused into “The Hungry Woman” frustrate our desire to make easy interpretation of the heavily layered play.

“You have the Chicano movement from the 1960s, queer rights, border issues between the U.S. and Mexico, indigenous cultures — both Aztec and Sundance — the patriarchy, feminism — it’s all interwoven,” Erica Ocegueda, a doctoral student in theatre performance of the Americas as well as choreographer and dramaturge for the production, said.

With all these overlapping identities, movements and spectrums, a condensed summary of “The Hungry Woman” does little justice to the can of worms opened on stage. Regardless, a summary is provided: the play takes place in a historical fictional context after a violent civil war divided the U.S. into a group of smaller factions. Not long after, a counterrevolution led by a bunch of queer-hating-patriarchy-loving folks forced all queers into exile under the Phoenician sun.

Our Medea (Adriana Ramos, a theatre senior) is one such exile, expelled from her home in Aztlán after her husband, Jasón (John Rose, a theater alumnus) discovered her in bed with another woman, Luna (Amy Arcega, a theater alumna). Along with her young son, Chac-Mool (Jorge Sánchez-Barceló, a philosophy junior), Medea and Luna move to Phoenix, seven years before the play picks up.

Despite the post-apocalyptic setting, “The Hungry Woman” examines the tale of Medea through the lens of ancient indigenous cultures, granting the audience a distance in which to rethink static notions of otherness prescribed by the norm. Aesthetically, this means the play is rich with beautifully rendered Aztec-inspired imagery and costumes. It is from this indigenous element that a chorus of “extras” springs, who weave in and out the tale as narrators, prison guards, nurses and god-like figures.

(Photo by Tim Trumble/Courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts) (Photo by Tim Trumble/Courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts)

The audience is brought into the story by these feathered characters — with a crack of mythical thunder — around the time Jasón decides he wants to reclaim custody of his now-teenaged son. This, as you might imagine, causes a few problems, problems that this cast of “Hungry Woman” bring to life onstage with hurricane power.

Ramos as the desperate, tequila-guzzling Medea is a force to be reckoned with. She summons a palpable tension to every scene, even though this is only her first lead role on the ASU Mainstage. Arcega brings dynamism into the eyes of Luna, who watches as her relationship to Medea painfully disintegrates under the pressure of the narrative.

The bulk of the pressure is provided courtesy of Rose’s Jasón, who manifests the cruel patriarchy in his every word as he tries to bring his son into the folds of the power structure that cast his mother into exile. It is this seemingly inevitable conclusion that Medea desperately tries to avert.

Her methods are questionable, to say the least, but they illustrate the horrors of a system of power that have marginalized Medea for her “otherness.” The only way to escape, it seems, is through death.

Moraga’s vision, however, is not so bleak.

“I think she’s trying to do two things in this play: really bring to light how much we still live in a deeply patriarchal society and, second, is to offer and undergird of bringing forth indigenous cultures as a possibility of looking at things a different way,” Ocegueda said.

“The Hungry Woman” certainly forces us to look at things a different way. If confronting the patriarchy wasn’t enough, Moraga also challenges our notions of sexuality as a binary. Without divulging all of “The Hungry Woman’s” narrative secrets, Medea’s identity as a lesbian is called into question.

Moraga is not invalidating the existence of lesbians; she argues for sexuality as a dynamic spectrum.

“Our sexualities and our genders and who we choose, who we are pushed to — all of that shifts in waves. … It really challenges us to not put it back into those binaries of either heterosexual or homosexual,” Ocegueda said.

At the very least, it’s clear that “The Hungry Woman” is not one of those plays you go to and think, “Wasn’t that pretty?” It does not affirm your view on the world; it calls everything into question. It bleakly depicts the problems of a patriarchal society. It reminds you that, even though gay marriage is legal, we’ve got a long way to go. It unflinchingly places lesbian sex right in your face (this show does contain mature content — someone even smokes a cigarette onstage!).

“There is no, ‘Oh, we’re going to turn off the lights,’ and it’s implied we have sex. No, she wants it up there. I think there is something very stark and brave in that. It puts even the most staunch liberals at disease,” Ocegueda said.

When the lights go up at the end of this two-act tour de force, the idea is that you should and will be impressed, confused and unsettled all at once. That’s the beauty of “The Hungry Woman,” which is just the first of a challenging season of subversive shows by ASU Mainstage. The program handed out at “The Hungry Woman” hints at a season marked by a cooler and more dead Romeo and Juliet, dysfunctional families and bunnies.

The chance to see such a subversive show is one of the joys of acquiring a liberal arts education (where challenging your idea of the world is to be expected), but even more rare is the chance available to those that see the show on Oct. 24 and 25, as Moraga will be in attendance to help make some sense of this complex work.

Before Friday’s showing, Moraga will lead a discussion, “On the Road to Xicana Consciencia: Public Reading and Dialogue,” at the Lyceum Theatre. After Saturday’s show, Moraga will stick around for a post-show conversation.

This reporter strongly encourages that you catch one of the remaining performances of “The Hungry Woman: A Mexican Medea” at the Lyceum Theatre, 901 South Forest Mall, on ASU’s Tempe Campus:

Oct. 23 at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 24 at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 25 at 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 26 at 2 p.m.

Ticket prices: $16 – General; $12 – ASU Faculty, Staff and Alumni; $12 – Senior; $8 – Student

Reach the reporter at zachariah.webb@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @zachariahkaylar.

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