There are no surprises in Medea. From the opening moments of the 2,400 year old Greek drama by Euripides, the audience is told exactly what's going to happen. The Nurse and chorus of Corinthian women who begin the play tell us that Jason has left his foreign-born wife Medea in favor of a princess of Corinth, that Medea is in a violent passion, and that they fear for the safety of her two sons by Jason.
Medea herself soon enters, and tells one and all that she plans to exact a fearsome revenge on Jason; that nothing less will do than murdering his new bride, and her own children. Medea waivers briefly over sacrificing her sweet and innocent sons--she knows full well the horror of the act and how it will destroy her emotionally--but she carries out her plan nonetheless. Having already made the boys unwitting accomplices in the deaths of the princess, Medea knows that the state will kill her boys in any case, even if she spares them.
So the fascination with Medea--and it does both fascinate and horrify audiences--isn't in the story, but in the telling; isn't in the action but in the characters; isn't in the events, but in the motives. A model of compression, it plays out in one act of 95 minutes, in which the tension must constantly rise, bringing audiences to the edge of their seats, not with the question of "will she or won't she," but with the question "how could she?" In such a condensed work, every word is heightened speech, and even the most intimate or casual scenes are not ordinary conversation. A pointed and elevated style is required, not psychological realism.
This is precisely the rock upon which director Brian Russell has stumbled in this new production of Medea at the American Theatre Company (ATC). The hoped-for tension--rising to that emotional release through terror and pity known as catharsis--isn't there, despite strong lead performances and a vigorous, uncluttered new translation by Nicholas Rudall. Russell, who is the ATC artistic director, undercuts the tension by staging dialogue scenes in the manner of ordinary conversation. Now, he doesn't do it all the time, and the production is very far from a failure, but it happens enough to rob Medea of its full potential.
One of the scenes where this occurs is the brief appearance by Aegeus, King of Athens (played with dignity by Matt Janes) who grants Medea asylum. Their brief conversation, although personal, is laden with political portent and talk of the Delphic Oracle. In this production, however, they sound like backyard neighbors, when urgency and motive are what is required. The first, even more-crucial, confrontation between Medea and Jason plays like a garden-variety marital squabble or divorce proceeding, when this is Medea's last, desperate chance to plead with Jason, and she knows up front that she'll lose.
Perhaps Russell was fooled by Rudall's translation. Because it is so plain-spoken, in modern English vernacular (although never veering into slang or colloquialism), there may be moments that seem casual and conversational, though they are not. The simplicity of the language is the basis of both rhythm and pace, and also makes the passion and ideas of the play absolutely clear. Rudall's translation also preserves the deep irony, even sarcasm, of Euripides, and Russell fully understands it, to his credit. "I would fight three times in battle rather than give birth but once," Medea declares to a warrior in one of the play's double-edged and mocking lines.
In one of the most anticipated performances of the year, ATC ensemble member Carmen Roman (winner of a 1999 Joseph Jefferson Award for her portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class) takes on Medea. She brings physical stature and noble bearing, and a deep and rolling voice, to the role. She also possesses a pitiable understanding of the trap in which Medea finds herself, often expressed through the eyes or through a sadness around the mouth. "I understand the horror of what I must do. But passion is stronger than reason, and passion is the grief of the world," Medea says in the play's most fundamental line.
Another 1999 Jeff Award winner, Yasen Peyankov, is Jason. He brings a stalwart, world-weary, even slightly cynical quality to the role; a manliness without braggadocio. Peyankov's receding hairline and trim but un-heroic physique also provide Jason with a middle-aged look, and suggested a hero who may have outsmarted his opponents, rather than outfought them.
Russell has chosen a timeless look for the production that has both classical and contemporary reference. Scenic designer Scott Cooper provides what appears to be an iron-clad and rusting palace, filling the stage with solid and windowless walls. Dead vines cling to the side, and a curving staircase sweeps out on one side, the only way in or out. It could be modern or ancient architecture. One criticism: fully half the house can't see a platform where two live musicians play Eastern-influenced music (composed by ATC ensemble member Dawn Bach); music which mainly backs the choral odes.
The costumes by Jana Stauffer include ankle-length sleeveless dresses of dark colors for the women, simple and modern in cut yet suggestive of tunics and chitons. Further, the primitive jewelry and delicate tattoos of the chorus tie this production to seminal theatircal rituals. The men have more eclectic garb, ranging from a semi-military uniform for Jason, to royal robes for Aegeus and Creon, to tunics for Medea's sons and for the messenger who brings the news of the deaths of Creon and his daughter (played with a splendid balance of excitement and loathing by Ron Wells).
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