Ecuadorean Peky Andino sheds new light on the Greek myth of Medea as the child-killing mother who gets away with murder. The playwright/poet changes Medea into a sympathetic, blind saint from Ecuador and skillfully creates a hauntingly surreal, dramatic monologue about all emigrants who seek a better life by leaving their homeland.
According to the program, Andino intends Medea Calls Collect to be allegorical. Medea, who personifies the Motherland, started her peripatetic search for Jason’s lost sons, that is, Ecuador’s people, in Guayaquil, a port city significant for its name. (More on that later.) It pays to know the Greek myth first because this richly-textured monologue is pegged to it:
Endowed with magical powers, Medea helped Jason seize the Golden Fleece that represents a mantle of power from a sacred golden ram. The lovers fled the scene, and Medea gave birth to two sons. But Jason cheated on her by marrying Creusa, a king’s daughter, for political advantage. So Medea sent a gift of a poisoned tunic that burned the bride’s flesh to the bone; and thereafter the discarded wife committed filicide to teach Jason not to play around. Medea then flew away in a chariot, drawn by dragons.
Andino updates the story by catching up with Medea as an illegal alien in search of a home. Medea has wandered to many ports as a stowaway, but now in a stopover in New York City, she places a collect call to Jason whom she addresses as “my Ecuador.” She’s eager to about her rough passage as an emigrant.
What’s fascinating is the way author Andino, throughout this piece, mixes myths from Greece and Ecuador with modern detail in the monologue. Medea opens by telling Jason she is in “…the City of the Fleeces,” an echo of the Greek legend. In the context of New York, the city she describes as “…bee-hives of the stock broker warriors….,” the fleece could be the quest for financial security. Or “to fleece” meaning “to swindle,” could be New York personified, the big city of diversity with its pressures for assimilation that robs the foreigner of identity.
Although her Medea comes across as aptly larger-than-life, actress Maria Beatriz Vergara, dressed in a gauzy, multi-layered dress, of pastel brown and henna earth colors, magnificently projects a complicated, highly sensitive, vulnerable woman, more frightened than frightening. Medea’s random stream-of-consciousness, imagistic soliloquy that is as fragmented as a broken mirror must be challenging to perform. But seated comfortably on a center stage spotlighted platform, Vergara as the blind Medea is impressively flexible, convincing and deeply moving as she effortlessly unravels the lament for her sad life into a swirling miasma that is bizarre, even ghoulish at points.
Vergara clearly expresses her deeply felt pain and suffering with broad, sweeping gestures; and we empathize with Medea instead of condemn her. There are chilling moments when Medea is tripping out on a hallucinogenic drug, followed by the delirium tremens of drug addiction and recovery. Medea is more of a thwarted and persecuted earth mother than a shrewish witch. At several points, she stretches her arms out into a crucifix pose.
So why did the Ecuadorean Medea emigrate? Vergara as Medea is glowing as she recreates how the family-centered natives built her a house and worshipped her like a saint. Believing her to be the queen of black magic, “an all-powerful sorceress,” the people wanted Medea to perform miracles, just as Jason used her to steal the Golden Fleece. More interested in enjoying life, the Ecuadoreans asked for the fermented drink, “chaguarmishqui.” Ultimately disillusionment sets in, and the people began an exodus because of “500 years of scorn, abuse, oppression, and a brutal impossibility to love.” And loneliness drove Medea to follow her people.
During the course of Medea’s nomadic ramblings, Andino’s narration continues to juxtapose images of a vanishing Ecuador with modern life. Vergara’s performance escalates in intensity through masterfully planned lighting changes (designed by Juan Andrade Polo) as the actress takes on the voices of different characters and personalities. Through her blinded eyes we see a hard life in the new world. Hope turns to despair quickly in New York among homeless people, dishwashers and cleaning people, the garment district workers without green cards, “at the Seventh Avenue weaving machines.” Medea identifies with them and speaks for the forgotten people who need to be heard.
In one startling moment, Vergara changes her voice, hunches over and assumes the character of one of Jason’s sons she murdered. He voices his rootless feeling of displacement and alienation in the foreign New York culture. “Stable job, respect, hope, I did not have, I still do not have….” Yet, ironically, the youth remembers himself as the son of royalty, as he recites the series of important cities in Ecuador, including Guayaquil, named after the legendary Indian chief Guayas who along with his wife Quil, committed suicide rather than submit to Spanish conquistadores.
The text is difficult and convoluted. The poetic images swirl and we must piece them together. I found myself wishing for more program notes to pin down the fleeting allusions that are not explained. Yaravi guitar music, which we occasionally hear strumming in the background (sound design by Roberto Vergara Arias) is the song of departure of the Incas because of colonial domination, which musicians call “the saddest music in the world.” And mention is made of the traditional Cangahua Festival, dating back to the disappearing Incan celebrations of the summer solstice. And finally, there is mention of the famous Taita Volcano located in Ecuador’s highest peak, the Chimborazo, the farthest point from Earth’s center because of the equatorial bulge that makes its summit the closest to outer space.
Essentially this theatrical monologue is about emigration and what gives Equadorean culture its unique beauty and individuality. The piece is existentialist. Before there is extinction of some of the sacred customs, Medea is desperately pleading with her dispersed children to return to their homeland. “Only then will they be able to look at themselves in the mirror without shame and write the true story….: The freedom of being and enduring.”
Performed in Spanish with English translation
Medea Calls Collect has 3 remaining performances: Friday, Oct. 28 – 8pm, and Saturday, Oct. 29 – 3pm & 8pm at Gunston Arts Center – Theatre 2, 2700 South Lang St., Arlington, VA.
Medea Llama por Cobrar (Medea Calls Collect)
Written and directed by Peky Andino
Produced by Zero No Zero Teatro from Ecuador for Teatro de la Luna’s 14th International Festival of Hispanic Theater
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: One hour and 15 minutes. In Spanish with headsets for simultaneous translation.