April Thompson and Arthur French in Medea
(Photo: Christopher McElroen)
April Thompson and Arthur French in Medea
(Photo: Christopher McElroen)
The Classical Theater of Harlem's whirlwind of a Medea opens with a procession of marvelous images. The heavy industrial doors of the Harlem School of the Arts theater are pulled back and we are treated to the gentle sight of children at play; these are the title character's doomed sons, tended by their elderly nurse while the Corinthian women, our chorus, look on. Then the lights dim, the music swells, and director Alfred Preisser (who also adapted Euripides' 431 B.C. script into a taut, 70-minute piece) presents the rest of his cast in lively parade: the fates, hooded and grim; the arrogant princess who has stolen Medea's man, borne in like Cleopatra by a troupe of sturdy slaves; and then Medea herself, wild-eyed and furious.

As well she might be. The backstory here is that Medea helped Jason (of Argonauts fame) procure the Golden Fleece; in the process, she betrayed her father and killed her brother, all out of desperate love for her man. But now that Jason and Medea have arrived in his home kingdom, he's thrown her over for a virgin princess, the daughter of king Kreon. The action opens on a sad night for Medea, who faces separation from her children and exile from Corinth while her erstwhile love prepares to marry his child bride the next morning.

You may or may not have read this one in high school. Suffice it to say that things do not go well for anyone, least of all Medea's children. In retelling the grim tale, Preisser does a near-miraculous job of managing his large cast into tableaux of striking symmetry and beauty. Particularly effective is the long moment before Jason presents his new bride with a fateful "gift" sent by Medea: While Medea looks on with a cruel smile and the chorus and soldiers watch from either side as if observing a parade, Lawrence Winslow as Jason moves step by slow-mo step across the stage. Choreographers Tracy Johnson and Angela Hughes have done their part to enrich the spectacle of this Medea, creating a series of exuberant dances with which the chorus accompanies its chanting--and, at occasional moments, its lovely singing.

There is only one problem with Classical Theater of Harlem's Medea but it is, damn the fates, not a minor one. Where Preisser has been incredibly successful in crafting a visually and aurally satisfying show with excellent lighting design by Christopher McElreon, sound design by Stefan Jacobs, and costume design by Kimberly Glennon, he has fallen behind in the equally important task of giving his production the emotional weight it demands. April Thompson as Medea, the brutalized and brutal woman at the center of the show, begins at a high pitch of hysterical anger and ends at a high pitch of hysterical anger, failing to find a jot of nuance to lend to this tragic figure.

The supporting cast comes off better but, then again, their job in general is simpler: to create the arresting stage pictures, delirious dances, and sharp dramatic moments that Preisser requires of them. Scenes that should have an emotional impact seem flat and curiously cold as the actors rush along, not bothering to be affected by the specifics of what is happening. This is especially so in the scene where Kreon throws Medea out of his kingdom; Arthur French as the cruel king blusters and (literally) shakes his fists, indicating haughtiness and rage. Thompson hurls herself about and screeches, indicating anger. Overall, this Medea is intelligently wrought but not, in the end, deeply felt.