Vivian Martínez Tabares
Author: Abelardo Estorino. Director and set designer: Abelardo Estorino. Light: Carlos Repilado. Set design and costumes: Eduardo Arrocha. Music: Juan Piñera, Actress: Adria Santana.
One of the most prevalent and successful trends in contemporary Latin American theatre has been the rewriting of classical texts, mainly tragedies. The preference has been for plays with political implications, which dramatists have used to create characters and mythical projections which have related to the historic, social and cultural circumstances of their own times. Thus have they kept in touch with their own audiences. Within this tendency, Antigone has certainly been, in recent years, one of the most efficient examples of a rebellious heroin who defies arbitrary and autocratic rules. However, Medea has also been a persistent presence, not only for her specific tragic condition, as an unnatural mother who does not hesitate in sacrificing her children to have her revenge over her treacherous husband, but also as the foreigner, the immigrant, a desperate witch who terrorises in order to annihilate Jason, thus affirming a perverted identity.
We should say that, very often, these rewritings deliberately violate the canon in a mostly bold and conscious way, thus freely taking hold of heritage and refashioning it according to specific deeds and contexts.
Medea proves to be extraordinarily powerful in contemplations of serious problems of today’s world, such as difference – the other, marginality –, gender and migration. This is true of all the versions of Medeawritten by Euripides, Seneca, Corneille, Jean Anouilh and Heiner Müller, and we can find echoes and references to them in the plays by, among others, Pepe Triana, Ramiro Guerra, Hugo Argüelles, Chico Buarque de Hollanda and Paulo Pontes, Pedro Santaliz, Reinaldo Montero, Denise Stoklos, Teatro Matacandelas, Pecky Andino, David Hevia, Raquel Araújo, Rolando Pérez and, now, Abelardo Estorino’sMedea sueña Corinto.
As a playwright, Estorino takes as sources for his creative work some of the readings of Greek tragedy which exist within Cuban heritage, such as a noted adaptation of Medea created in the 1950s. He also draws upon his own experience as theatre director of Reinaldo Monter’s Medea, a curious experiment which adopts structural elements of the Greek tragedy, but contaminates them with mockery and irony, in an unequivocal Cuban language, intertextualizing popular expressions and slang, thus highlighting the theme of migration and its attendant notions of insularity, identity and belonging/estrangement.
Estorino blends references to the common everyday life with the universal literary heritage when processing the myth via Western history and culture. And he also highlights the condition of the migrant when he characterises the protagonist as a poor woman from the South – mestiza from the Caribbean – rather modest and working class, who enjoys the sea and the simple pleasures of life. When she meets Jason she is overwhelmed and fascinated by the possibility of changing her life in search of an unknown comfort, considering: “Isn’t it true that everything is ever changing?”
In order to have her dream come true – crossing the sea towards the Promised Land – Medea bestows to Jason a power and the most cherished treasure of her land, with no hesitation or remorse. And she goes even further: she questions the ethical values that have defended the preservation of that treasure in the altars of the common well being. The voyage is a clandestine and risky escape that reminds us of suicide crossings in rafts and dinghies, in which people are willing to overcome all obstacles and risk any mishaps in order to achieve that goal. This is not very different from many stories we encounter in the international sections of today’s news reports. This is especially true when Medea finally discovers that the status of a migrant still creates an indestructible barrier, the immigrant remains other, despised, used, put aside and sent back.
As an aside, Medea questions the audience about its silence and its lack of opinion. These, she implies, are immobilising vices, which neglect human action and, therefore, ideology and politics. The social masks worn by the audience are exposed, and the onlookers are satirised as a homogenous block, false, sterile and mischievous. For Abelardo Estorino, truth is the essential ethical principle of man’s behaviour in society and an indispensable condition of his complete emancipation, as well as a conceptual leitmotiv.
Estorino proposes a dialogue with Euripides, through engagement with the dualities and contradictions identified in the character of Medea. If Euripides articulates the traits of the mythical Medea, as a wise woman and witch, young woman in love and revenging wife, lovable mother and implacable murderer, respected lady and despised foreigner; Estornino enriches the figure with ingredients coming from various cultural sources. The dilemma: to leave or not to leave, so dear to Electra Garrigó, is one of the characteristics of a rich dual play: two worlds – one primitive, the other sophisticated –, periphery and centre; change or not to change, antiquity and the New World. And he imports the compositional metadiscourse that comes from tradition: Euripides is and is not there, as well as Seneca, Corneille, Anouilh and Triana.
We can detect once more, as in other of his plays, the questioning of a prescribed history, legitimated by tradition and the canon. Medea, a divided feminine subject, held as barbarian in the colonial gaze of the Empire, belies the accepted truth, wants to change her destiny and rebels against the inexorable fact that she is a character of a legend: “I want to be a free woman”. She questions all those who have told her story, even Euripides himself, with whom she discusses matters from different perspectives. The authors she challenges are themselves characters that the actress – for whom this play has been written specifically – impersonates. Indeed, Adria Santana is a close collaborator of the playwright. As an author, Estorino has become more and more involved with the stage, directing the actress, designing the movement, and allotting to the actress the responsibility of a direct and committed dialogue with the audience, thus activating an exchange of ideas and relations that go beyond the script.
We also find in the play the sensual and erotic trait that seems to be characteristic of the Cuban identity, tackled by the author with delicacy and elegance. When Medea prepares for the presentation of Jason in her story – as well as when she tries to remove those terrible memories – she rejoices in the pleasure the sea brings to her body. The description of the contact with the water, the awareness of its mild temperature, the way it contracts her muscles and the salty taste on her lips are the perfect prelude to the appearance of the man she has desired so strongly: “There you are, Jason, on your feet, in the sea, as master of the sea, the whole blue belongs to you: a blue smile, the blue indigo of your eyes.”
In Medea Dreams about Corinto, the tragic flaw is diminished by “the accident”: more than hubris, we find a miscalculation, and the pathos lacks transcendence, since Medea has not premeditated to kill her children, but loses them when she uses them as a tool to destroy Creusa and Creon. The outcome is much more prosaic and desolate while the protagonist – reunited with Jason – serves him soap and coffee as a perpetual and daily routine related to their curse, and the sour smell that fills the house: “Ever since we have met we have only bred lies and treacheries.”
Medea is cast as a dominated victim. She has failed in her intention, as do so many in these times of acute economic crisis in the process of globalisation. Like so many migrants who find that the grass was not, in fact, greener on the other side, she wishes she was able to return home. She does not succeed in reaching the consecration that the tragic poet – here a traitor, in a certain sense – had promised her. Estorino dreams of another, American Medea who repeats her story as a sad farce.
In the first scene Medea is dressed in red, the light comes in vertically and she steps on to a circular platform which represents the island, surrounded by four wooden beams with candles. The appearance of Jason in her memory-tale is an orgasm of gasping and gestures, with no false modesty, performed under a bleak and intimate light that underlines the Caribbean sensuality of this Cuban Medea. The actress comes to the proscenium, addresses us directly and ironically with speeches which engage not only her but ourselves today, in this moment in this very place. She shares her doubts with us, and – both as Medea and as Adria Santana – she proposes a dialogue with us. For a moment she forces us, as an open assembly, to stand in order to welcome Seneca and discuss the double morality, a contemporary contradiction that involves each and every one of us. She asks us “Shall I leave or not?”, and, secretly, in the obscurity of the hall, she shares with us examples of departures, evoking the circumstances and dramas of contemporary migrations from the South to the North that go far beyond local problems.
The light, by Carlos Repilado, creates illusionary zones and varied dramatic sensations with splendid atmospheres, suggestive beams of light and the appalling abyss in which Medea’s presence almost disappears when she loses her children, in the gaping wind. Set design and costumes, by Eduardo Arrocha, are also inspired, stressing the brownish and coarse tones. Having worked with Estorino in the past, Eduardo Arrocha was able to translate the visual poetry and the efficient images of this play.
The powerful energy that the actress gives to her actions with her children and her husband – momentarily interrupted by moments of sterile dialogue with Euripides – is strong enough to compensate the only virtual presence of her relatives. As when she flavours the salt of the beach – before the emergence of the ship with that splendid man Jason – a moment which is accompanied by the music of Juan Piñera, which is a beautiful fusion of rhythms evoking ancient atmospheres and contemporary sonorities.
Adria Santana displays a vast possibility of physical and vocal resources when changing from love to hatred, gives life to the few props on stage – a cushion; the pillar she strikes; the barrier that hides the golden fleece; the ritual mask representing the authors of the saga; the military cap that will be the allegory of Creon and his arbitrary and imperial power; the broad black veil that will come with thehubris; the single candle, with which she says goodbye to us all, while resigning, defeated, to her wretched destiny.
 Vivian Martínez Tabares is a theatre critic and researcher, as well as editor and teacher. She directs the journal on Latin Ameritan Theatre Conjunto and has recently published a compilation of her reviews in: Pensar el teatro en voz alta (To think on theatre aloud). She is presently Cultural Attaché of Cuba in Mexico.
 Main character of the emblematic play by Virgilio Piñera (1912-1979) that rereads Electra from the Cuban viewpoint of the sentimental education granted to us by our parents. Written in 1941, the play marks the entrance of Cuban theatre into modernity.