In ancient mythology, as stop-motion animation may have memorably taught you, Jason and the Argonauts journeyed on the good ship Argo to Colchis, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, all to find the Golden Fleece. There, Jason fell in love with his exotic Medea, and back they came across the waters, killing a bronze man on Crete, dealing with fire-breathing oxen and sundry other matters before landing uneasily in Corinth, where Jason made his play for power. But things did not go so well for them in the end.
Such journeys of strife and adventure are a crucial part of these ancient tales, not to mention of the great dramas of Shakespeare, where adventurers might trek through Italy with shrewish wives in tow, get half-drowned in horrific storms, or find themselves washed up on exotic tropical islands populated by weird spirits.
In 48 hours of Chicago theatergoing, I was struck twice by the connection between such voyages and the typically fraught journeys to America of illegal immigrants.
The first such moment was Saturday night at "Home/Land," the passionate piece about immigration and its human consequences, staged by the Albany Park Theatre Project at the Goodman Theatre. One of its most arresting scenes is a horrific journey on a cramped boat, taken by scared families huddled together, and performed here in part by the real-life children of those families who then settled in Albany Park. For those who support a path to citizenship for people in the United States without papers, vividly explaining to ordinary Americans what many immigrants went though to get here is job one.
The Greeks understood that many great stories feature an epic voyage; quite a few Chicagoans have one buried in their past.
The second such moment was during Luis Alfaro's potent "Mojada" at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, a similarly intense retelling of Medea's story through the device of making Medea an illegal immigrant from Mexico, living and working as a seamstress in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen.
This Medea's Jason has no Argonauts attached and no heroes to command, but he does journey with his nervous, strangely gifted love across land, sea and desert — in this case, the Arizona desert, where hostile forces, legislative and otherwise, terrify the fleeing couple (and their child) at every turn. Alfaro is exceptionally adept at making the plot points of the ancient tragedy work in terms of immigrant experience, and this particular voyage fills much the same dramatic function as the famous Euripidean recounting of what Jason and Medea went through together (in both plays, Medea kills her brother for the sake of her lover). And thus, once the couple settle uneasily into the new land for which they fought at such cost, the man's betrayal feels all the more brutal.
In a chat a week or two before opening, Alfaro pointed out to me that, contrary to our image of grand actresses of a certain age playing Medea in the theater, Greek women usually started having their children around age 13, and were done by about 19, meaning that Euripides' Medea actually was much younger than you might think. In all probability, she still was in her early 20s, a stranger in an unforgiving and confusing land.
"The Greeks," Alfaro said, "were really telling a modern story about immigration. People think 'Medea' is about a sorceress, but it's less about that, really, and far more about what happens when you go to another country and your husband just assimilates more quickly than you do."
"Home/Land" runs through Sunday in the Owen Theatre at the Goodman, 170 N. Dearborn St.; 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
"Mojada" runs through Aug. 11 by Victory Gardens at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-871-3000 and victorygardens.org