Classical Tales and Custody Battles

Borderlands re-creates the story of Medea; Chamber Music PLUS looks at Beethoven's family dynamic

Luis Alfaro's new play, Bruja, has the power to knock your socks off with its aura of mystery, its fresh reinvention of the ancient Medea myth anchored in the cultural turmoil of Latino immigrants trying to adapt to life in American society, and a cathartic recognition that only with great consequence will ambitions in a new country smother the values of one's home.

But the crew at Borderlands Theater labors to bring Alfaro's play to life onstage. There are some glints of dramatic light that flicker from time to time, like the candles on the Bruja's altar, but there are some conceptual disorders, a mix of styles that doesn't always work and scenes that stutter rather than interlock into a dynamic flow.

Bruja, a take on Euripides' treatment of the Medea myth, concludes, Alfaro says, his re-creation of a cycle of classical tales by the celebrated tragedians of Greek theater. In Electricidad he reworks Electra; in Oedipus el Rey, he mines classical themes of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. His plays are situated to filter the characters and their stories through the prism of the Latino experience in America. A community activist, playwright, poet and performance artist, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation grant, Alfaro is making a name for himself by examining the powerful nature of our cultural home, often from a feminist point of view, and the similarity of the themes that have plagued and intrigued all human civilization.

In Bruja, Medea (Angelica Rodenbeck) is a healer, a shaman, a curandera. This opens the story to a sense of mystery and power, which theater is just the medium to exploit. But bruja also means "witch," and extends the possible effects of Medea's powers to dangerous ends. And since we know Euripides' treatment of the myth, we know the horrors this scorned woman is capable of.

Some issues on opening night may work themselves out as the cast becomes more comfortable. For one thing, they simply need to pick up their cues. By not doing so they not only slow the course of the tale, but also undercut their storytelling effectiveness because ordinary moments tend to feel like they have the same weight as the melodramatic ones.

There are some good performances. But the actors tend to differ in their styles of bringing their characters to life, with the result that they almost seem like they're in different plays. And although Vieja (Esther Almanzan) is an important character, and Almanzan is a capable actor, her presence is not utilized effectively. The result is that she is just there, hovering, with no discernable purpose. Her character could provide so much more life and continuity to the story.

Although the production has some miscues, Alfaro's play addresses some provocative questions, and those come through, even though sometimes it's a bumpy road we have to take to discover them.

After an unexpectedly slow start to this year's season, Chamber Music PLUS has been plenty busy since the calendar declared it is 2013.

Since then, it has presented a more experimental than usual show about John Cage. It reunited Michael Learned and Richard Thomas, performing together for the first time since The Waltons. Then for the inaugural season of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, Chamber Music PLUS collaborated with Ballet Tucson and the Tucson Guitar Society in a show called Passionately, Piazzola, about the composer considered the godfather of Tango Nuevo. Then the Clark/Schuldmann duo (Harry Clark, cellist, and Sanda Schuldmann, pianist) presented an intimate concert featuring romantic music just a few weeks ago.

This Sunday, Chamber Music PLUS is again in its signature concert format, which combines music with a script, written by Clark. This show is titled Sister in Law Beethoven, and will feature actress Margot Kidder, who has appeared with Clark and Shuldmann here before.

The show focuses on the strange and malicious battle between Beethoven and his brother Caspar Karl's widow over custody of Beethoven's nephew, Karl. Beethoven held on for 10 years, even pursuing legal action, claiming Johanna was unfit to raise the heir, that her son was related to nobility, that he would be the next Mozart—all ostensibly untrue.

Kidder will portray Johanna, and she speaks with both excitement and admiration for what Chamber Music PLUS brings to the world of creative work.

"What Harry does is incredibly brilliant. When I was there the first time, I had to throw out everything I thought I was going to do, and I realized that Harry was creating a really unique art form. The key is the marriage of music and words, and you have to take your cues from the emotional reality of the music. So I was blown away and a little lost, but really excited. I can't wait to see what he's got up his sleeve this time. Can't wait.

"Rehearsal is very exciting. I've always been in awe of music in the way it takes you to places in your soul that are wordless. It's very profound. The challenge is fitting your (character's) voice within what he's done with the music.

"I can't wait to get down there to see what we're going to do. It's always a big surprise—like a birthday present—you have no idea what's inside the box."