Sabina Zúñiga Varela



LOS ANGELES TIMES: A renewed ‘Uncle Vanya’ at Pasadena Playhouse shines with unforced naturalism

"Sabina Zúñiga Varela’s performance as Sonya is the most strikingly original in the production. This young woman whom Astrov admires but cannot passionately love is unsentimentally endowed with a strength and intelligence grounded in Chekhov’s forgiving wisdom."

ARTS BEAT LA: “Uncle Vanya” reviewed "Varela seems less depressed than previous Sonyas I’ve seen, but instead has an underlying core of joy, which comes out in scenes of happy excitement where she hopes that Astrov will love her.

MOJADA: A Medea in Los Angeles @ Portland Center Stage

The Oregonian/Oregon Live:
'Mojada' beautifully fuses Greek myth with a modern immigration story (review) "Almost everything in Varela’s performance is just below the surface. She moves with a deliberate cautiousness. Her Medea has drawn deep inside herself, always hinting at a past that torments her. But coming through with that vulnerability is strength: a strength that allows her to survive terrible things, but also commit terrible acts."

Medea crosses the border in "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles," The ancient figure of vengeance takes on a more sympathetic role as a desperate illegal immigrant "But this is Zuniga Varela’s show, and boy, does she deliver. Her character is quiet, afraid, reserved, and meek, so it would be easy for her to be overshadowed by powerhouse actors like VIVIS, Valdez, and Silva. But her quiet grace, her stoicism, the quick flashback scenes between scenes, bring a larger-than-life character to the stage. Zuniga Varela portrays true desperation in Medea during the run-up to the play’s final moment. And, without giving too much away, her performance in that final moment could have been a caricature in the hands of a lesser performer. Instead, it devastates and shatters expectations."

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles by Luis Alfaro 

Siskiyou Daily News
 Shakespeare Festival Review: "Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles" a haunting and masterful work of art. By Bill "When Jason finally betrays her in the most awful fashion, Zuniga Varela plays to perfection the rage and anger that has been building up in Medea. It is one of the most haunting and heartbreaking performances I have seen on stage"

California Shakespeare Theater's 

You Never Can Tell

August 17th, 2016

Cal Shakes toys with classic George Bernard Shaw comedy—Karen D'Souza, The Mercury News

August 17, 2016 

You Never Can Tell an entertaining revival—Charles Brousse, Pacific Sun

August 16, 2016
Review: You Never Can Tell—Adam Brinklow, Edge Media Network

August 14, 2016 Best Is Worth the Wait in Shaw Gone Wild at Cal Shakes—Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle 

August 9, 2016

1896 Feminism Piercingly Relevant at Cal Shakes—Lily Janiak, SF Chronicle


September 19, 2015 8:11 AM ET
The Greek tragedy Medea has been rewritten for the modern age. Mojada: A Medea, running in LA, is set in Southern California and involves a border crossing, a garment worker and a straying husband.

Review 'Mojada' at the Getty Villa convincingly updates Greek tragedy to modern-day L.A.
September 10, 2015
"Sabina Zuniga Varela's beautiful yet clearly grief-stricken Medea fiddles with swatches of fabric as though unable to lift her sorrowful head. She refuses to make time for a family outing to Santa Monica even after she hears that the trip requires only two bus rides each way. To judge by her dejected body language, she works compulsively not merely to earn money but to expiate some secret guilt."

Theater Review: At Getty Villa, update of classic ‘Medea’ feels topical, timeless
September 9, 2015
"Crafted by Alfaro and Kubzansky, this Medea is of another world, and, in portraying her, Sabina Zuniga Varela lives as if in a dream she can’t awaken from. Varela’s Medea could be a soul of the past, she could be unrelentingly clinging to her life as it was in Mexico. She is also very likely unhinged."

What Do Greek Tragedies and the Latino Experience in L.A. Have in Common?
September 16, 2015
"“The wife is the last to know,” as they say, and it takes Medea some time to realize she’s been betrayed. Once she realizes it, her transformation is swift. The character ignites, and Varela’s performance, muted to this point, ignites with it."

Why The Surprisingly Feminist Themes Of An Ancient Greek Play Are Relevant Today
September 30, 2015
"The gripping adaptation brings the horrors of immigration, oppression and assimilation to Los Angeles...In the end, it's difficult for viewers to adhere to their moral compasses and not commiserate with Medea's deadly decision. The oppression faced by both Mexican immigrants and women is difficult to stomach, with Medea bearing the brunt of both. On two counts, she's treated as invisible...Whether or not you feel for Medea as she disappears, machete in hand, into her house to the sounds of her screaming son, it's nearly impossible not to get goosebumps as she emerges, in the play's final moments, soaring above the set, flapping her wings, whooping like a bird, haunting and free."


"In all of this, Varela is so compelling, so strong, so vulnerable, she practically makes it The Tragedy of Jocasta.  She certainly helps make it one of the boldest shows Moriarty has ever directed." Art & Seek Review 

"Sabina Zuniga Varela plays queen Jocasta with the elegance required of a woman of her stature, who also carries the burdened authority of someone who has borne the restrictions and repressions that custom dictates. Her physical beauty is mature enough to be convincing as mother, yet believable as capable of awakening the longings of the young Oedipus." Theater Jones Review 

"The seventh and final member of the company, Jocasta (Sabina Zuniga Varela, simultaneously vulnerable, tough and irresistible), emerges barefoot like an angel or ghost in a simple, clinging white dress and tattooed angel wings on her back..." The Dallas Morning News 

The acting, as we’ve come to expect from Dallas Theater Center productions, is top-notch across the board; Bowgen, Daniel Duque-Estrada (Creon and others) and Sabina Zuniga Varela (Jocasta) give especially noteworthy performances." Culture Map Dallas Review 

"You won’t want to leave... the play is riveting."The Flash List Review 

"Matching him moment-for-moment and emotion-for-emotion, fully present in every scene, is the powerhouse performance of Sabina Zuniga Varela as Jocasta.... Ms. Varela is strong, seductive and vulnerable all in the same moment."Pegasus News Review by Chris Jackson




'Bruja' review: Fertile mix of ancient, fresh fury


Bruja: Tragedy. By Luis Alfaro. Directed by Loretta Greco. Through June 24. Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, S.F. 80 minutes. $22-$62. (415) 441-8822.

Forget Zeus and the Greek sun god Helios. The latest potent tragedy by the remarkable Luis Alfaro may be based on "Medea," but it's the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl who creates an indelible last image in the Magic Theatre world premiere of "Bruja."

As in "Electricidad" and his dynamic "Oedipus el Rey," Alfaro is wrestling a classic Greek tragedy into a modern Chicano context. But where the gang-warfare world of his "Oedipus," which premiered at the Magic two years ago, was rendered in stark, troubled machismo, the play that opened Wednesday rides deep currents of indigenous magic to conjure the wrath of a woman wronged.

The plight of Euripides' Medea as an exile in a foreign land seems more immediate for an illegal immigrant in the Mission District. Alfaro intertwines that peril with the powerlessness of ordinary women in traditional societies (unlike his Medea's royal namesake) to enliven and deepen the dramatic impact of her vulnerability. And where the 2,500-year-old magic spells in Euripides can seem pretty remote to us today, the Mesoamerican spirits Alfaro draws upon are alive all around us.

All those elements gather together in the perfect storm of Sabina Zuniga Varela's riveting performance as Medea in director Loretta Greco's masterfully orchestrated stagings. This Medea is a curandera (traditional healer), a practice Zuniga Varela carries out in rituals and consultations with a deeply vested, gentle seriousness that disarms any skepticism. But also with an inherent, focused power that foreshadows the dangerous bruja within.

She's also immediately empathetic as the loving, indulgent mother to two boys, played with lively charm by Daniel Castaneda and Gavilan Gordon-Chavez (alternating with Daniel Vigil and Mason Kreis). And she's the irresistibly sexy, lovely young wife of Sean San José's driven, ambitious, lusty and not entirely trustworthy contract laborer Jason.

Zuniga Varela doesn't have to project all those facets of Medea's complex personality alone. Every aspect is bolstered by the appreciation, wry commentary and constant play of emotions registered by Wilma Bonet as her devoted old nurse, in a performance that almost single-handedly embodies the tragic climax. Carlos Aguirre's rough-smooth Creon stokes the flames as Jason's self-made petty dictator boss - as solid and crude as the plywood walls of Andrew Boyce's set - whose plans for Jason's future threaten Medea's family.

That threat becomes palpable in a trenchant dinner scene, in the midst of paeans to family and how Jason met Medea. Alfaro's "Bruja" is as rich in the concentrated poetry of its discourse as his understated foreshadowings of plot turns and symbolism. When Jason compares his wife to a guaco, or laughing falcon, it's worth noting that this bird is known for feeding on snakes.

Anyone who knows "Medea" will have a good idea of the terrible events to come. But "Bruja" - written in English with sprinklings of Spanish and Nahuatl - is very much Alfaro's own creation. It's in the fertile blend of a harrowing ancient tragedy, no less enduring traditions from another side of the globe and today's pressing concerns that Alfaro strikes dramatic gold.

Robert Hurwitt is The San Francisco Chronicle's theater critic. E-mail:

Theater review: 'El Nogalar' at the Fountain Theatre


El Nogalar
Because I had read that Tanya Saracho’s “El Nogalar” was an adaptation of “The Cherry Orchard,” transplanted from Russia to present-day Mexico with a crop better suited to the climate (“El Nogalar” = “The Pecan Orchard”), I spent about half of my evening at the Fountain Theatre pouncing on Chekhovian clues in the Spanish/English/Spanglish text. Hey, that guy just called that girl “Dunia,” and she’s spraying Febreeze, so I bet she’s based on the maid, Dunyasha. His name is “Lopez.” Lopakhin? Aha!

But “The Cherry Orchard” (1904) is already kind of complicated. It has a large cast of characters, obliquely introduced, with torrents of hopes, delusions and griefs that are difficult to keep straight even when a local drug cartel hasn’t been thrown into the mix. So at last I stopped trying to follow the updated plot(s) and just enjoyed the sultry Mexican evenings — beautifully evoked by Frederica Nascimento’s simple set and Peter Bayne’s twangy guitar music — and the vivid performances.

Saracho has weeded out all the men but Lopez (Justin Huen); clearly the women are the soul of her attraction to Chekhov's last play. We meet feisty Dunia (charming Sabina Zuniga Varela) and weepy, old-maidish Valeria (sweet, endearing Isabelle Ortega) preparing the house for the return of Valeria’s mother, Maite (Yetta Gottesman), and half-sister Anita (Diana Romo), who have been living profligately in the United States while their estate has gone into debt. 

Valeria and Anita commiserate about their difficult mother before she appears, but the shock of Maite’s entrance is that she looks their age or younger. This statuesque knockout, as fresh-faced as the young Elizabeth Taylor, is supposed to be the faded Madame Ranevskaya? As soon as Gottesman speaks, though, you understand why she was cast; her Maite is charismatic, joyful, insane, a force of nature. Saracho’s boldest update is making the dynamic between Maite and Lopez overtly sexual. After their sadistic, heartbreaking love scene, hauntingly lit by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz, I will never be able to look at Ranevskaya or Lopakhin again without blushing. This is Chekhov picante.


More theater reviews from the Los Angeles Times

-- Margaret Gray

“El Nogalar,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 11. (323) 663-1525 or Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Photo: Yetta Gottesman and Justin Huen in "El Nogalar." Credit: Ed Krieger.



El Nogalar
by Tanya Saracho
directed by Laurie Woolery
Fountain Theatre
through March 11

Tanya Saracho's El Nogalar means The Pecan Orchard in English, so its similarity to Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard rings a bell even before one sees the play. There are differences between the two, of course. Saracho has taken out most of Chekhov's male characters and leaves but one: Lopez (Justin Huen) - Lopakhin in Cherry Orchard - the grandson of servants who has risen to sudden power and wealth through Mexico's drug cartel. It's not the Russian aristocratic middle class who have lost out to the rising lower class as in Chekhov, where the bank forecloses on the Ranevsky estate, but the Mexican drug dynasty that has contaminated all Mexican citizens, allowing the poor to usurp control and money - Saracho calls it new money, Facebook money. Now in a splendidly directed and acted production at the Fountain Theatre, this West Coast premiere sizzles with earthy passion and sensuality.

It is amazing that Saracho felt the Latin connection as she studied Chekhov's plays. She saw in his female characters the whining, complaining nature of Latin women and felt it would translate perfectly to an adaptation taking place in Modern day Mexico. One thinks of Chekhov's Three Sisters or Federico Garcia Lorca's Casa de Bernarda Alba as Dunia (Sabina Zuniga Varela), Valeria (Isabelle Ortega), Anita (Diana Romo) and Maite (Yetta Gottesman) complain about their losses, long for a better life, or a return to the former one, and seeth with passion, three of them attracted to the same man, Memo or Guillermo Lopez (Huen). As in Chekhov, Maite and her daughters lose Hacienda Los Nogales amd are left in despair, both penniless and homeless. The servants Lopez and Dunia triumph, also as in Chekhov, but in this play in an openly sensual, much anticipated intertwining. The sexual tension in El Nogalar is so akin to Garcia Lorca and is most definitely Spanish, and beautifully, poetically expressed by Saracho's fine writing, which provides more layers than just the obvious restructuring of the class system.
Under Woolery's detailed direction, the ensemble pull out full fledged passionate work. Maite, though the mother, is still beautiful, as described by Lopez, and Gottesman is perfectly cast. She brings a true sense of Latin pride and vengefulness to the character. Ortega is a standout as Valeria. She makes us witness her deep-seated pain, sexual repression and longing from the very beginning. Varela as Dunia is also a standout. Hers is a tricky character to play, as she feigns loyalty with a burgeoning sense of new-found freedom beneath. We sense her  possible come-uppence as she strives to speak better English and to utilize the Internet. Valera makes her a sensually smart cookie. Huen is appropriately confused as Lopez, remembering past simplicity and unsure of his new command, and Romo as Anita exudes to the letter the spoiled whining little rich girl, who was forced to ride in 'economy class'.
Frederica Nascimento's remarkable set design is a starkly decorated and sparsely lit former Spanish mans - with the stage floor opening to a pit beneath used in one scene for barbecuing a goat, made vivid with great lighting effects by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz - and Garry Lennon's costumes suit each character, as in the plain look for Valeria, but the vibrant red party dress for Maite.

This wonderful Nogalar, with Spanish and Spanglish phrases sprinkled throughout  - that definitely do not impede listeners' comprehension - has a rich poetic hue, as with, to quote but one of many metaphors, 'the locusts raping the trees' of the orchard to describe the cartel taking control. It is beautifully written and executed  by an outstanding director and cast. A truly great evening of theatre!

Read more:

Cross the border to a classic with ‘El Nogalar’ at the Fountain

Playwright Tanya Saracho’s rapid rise through the theatrical ranks parallels character Dunia’s rise through the social strata in El Nogalar, a modern, Mexican adaptation of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. One difference is that the playwright’s rise is not so devised.

Boston-cultivated and Chicago-culled Mexican playwright Saracho resists being called Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicana and other terms deemed to be limiting. She is foremost a writer. Yet her choice of playwrights to admire might be surprising to some.

When Saracho first got a hold of Chekhov’s final play, The Cherry Orchard, in college along with the rest of his Caucasoid canon, Saracho declared Chekhov to be the most Latino playwright she had encountered. “The women, the way they lamented, the way they seemed very Latino to me.”

When Chekhov first wrote The Cherry Orchard at the turn of the 20th century in Yalta about an aristocratic Russian family facing imminent loss of wealth, he likely didn’t foresee that his characters would resonate so wholly with 21st century border-town Mexicans experiencing ever-encroaching cartel violence.

There are many comparisons between 20th century Russia and 21st century México, including economic inequality, class conflict and endlessly wondering who to trust. You are forced to place your trust in both landlords and maids, yet either or both could have the power to unearth you. And either or both are themselves subject to an even greater power, which in 1900 Russia was the State and in modern México is the mafia.

Written as a comedy, The Cherry Orchard was first directed as a tragedy, and so for the 100 years since has walked the line between the two. This border between comedy and tragedy is just one of the many borders at issue here. There are lines between mothers and daughters, men and women, families and neighbors, bosses and workers – lines that are almost all, at some point, crossed.

In both the Chekhov version and Saracho’s version, the one line that stays fixed is that of guardianship over the land. Those who till the soil become owners of the soil. The workers are the last trees standing.

El Nogalar is Spanish for “the pecan orchard.” Why pecan? Perhaps because while cherries blossomed in Eastern Europe, pecans flourished in México. The first pecan orchards were planted in México in the 1700’s, and pecans were for a time more valuable than cotton. And also, perhaps, because cartels and social inequities and human nature are all tough nuts to crack and such cracking requires outside perspective and force.

While the casting in this West Coast premiere of El Nogalar is a tiny bit curious – Yetta Gotttesman who plays the mother seems too darned young – the acting is terrific, with the stand-out performance on opening night being that of Sabina Zuniga Varela as Dunia.

Varela captured the kind of depth and range that a maid who plays the social ladder like an accordion must have in order to win everyone’s trust. The other performances by Justin Huen as Lopez, Isabelle Ortega as Valeria, Diana Romo as Anita and Yetta Gottesman as Maité, despite her youthfulness, were also excellent.

The set, which is minimalist in a modernist way, is perfect in that it doesn’t overpower the action. It is understated, which supports Russian notions of frugality, yet colorful, to represent Mexican flavor. And the most striking colors, interestingly, are red and blue, perhaps to signify the Mexican-American gangs who have ties with the cartels who have people, not just in México, but also in Los Angeles, on edge.

In a final analysis, one reason to study such classic plays as The Cherry Orchard is to recognize that the times really haven’t changed much because people really haven’t changed much. Power, domination, loyalty, longing, displacement and revenge all still rule our collective destiny. While an orchard of trees is cultivated by humans, humans are cultivated by their nature.

Upcoming Events

Recent Blog Entries