Rebecca Wisocky in Medea in Jerusalem(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
Rebecca Wisocky in Medea in Jerusalem
(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
Euripides's name is nowhere to be seen on the credit page in the Medea in Jerusalem program, nor anywhere among the bios. Since the seminal dramatist died in 406 B.C.E., we can be certain that he didn't ask to have his famous moniker removed. But even were he alive to exercise that option, he might not have done so.

In brashly seizing complete credit for the work, which transports Euripides's play from Corinth to Israel, dramatist Roger Kirby has been more successful than a skeptical patron might expect upon entering the theater and, for that matter, during the early scenes of the play. What Kirby has wrought follows Euripides's narrative quite faithfully, right down to speeches and individual lines that he does freshen with current slang. (For instance, Medea says to Jason, "I could give a fuck who you fuck.")

In hauling Euripides into the blunt present, Kirby has done more than update the language of the play. He takes the antique Greek work and revitalizes the title figure by presenting her as a Muslim woman who's married a Jew, but the enterprising dramatist leaves the rest of the piece intact. The couple have brought their children -- a boy and a girl, not two boys -- to an environment where Medea feels woefully alienated. Moreover, she is increasingly outraged that her husband would contemplate a second marriage to someone who shares his religious background.

"Ripped from the headlines" is the cliché that Kirby and producers may have considered to promote the piece. The use of headlines abounds; they're interpolated into the action as repeated radio reports. Along with coverage of suicide bombings and the like, there's soothing talk of Sesame Street bowing on local airwaves. These allusions to a famous TV show for kids are anything but accidental. On the contrary, they are stressed to prepare the audience for the point that Kirby is making about Medea's most horrifying moment: the sacrifice of children.

As Kirby plants it, Medea (Rebecca Wisocky in this adaptation) once again has colluded in murder to save hubby Jason (Sean Haberle), only to find herself asked to step aside so that he can make a more fortuitous alliance. Again, she rebuffs his requests and, refusing to listen to confidants (Jennifer McCabe as Medea's sister, Ariel Shafir as her brother) or adversaries (Miller Lide as an American lawyer), she attempts to cajole Jason into changing his mind. When he won't, she sets her revenge in motion -- and she may well be literature's greatest example of a scorned woman outdoing Hell in her fury.

It's here where Kirby takes his greatest dramatic liberty with Euripides. No details will be given about the alteration other than to note that when Medea sends her son (Robert Wands) and daughter (Alexis Underwood) to accompany Jason to meet his waiting bride, she insists that the boy wear his backpack. It's a chilling notion that drives home Kirby's message about the wages of religious conflict being visited on the children. Another liberty, one that should be mentioned: Kirby has Medea choosing infanticide because she expects her children to turn on her eventually. This is a motivation that Euripides overlooked -- and it just goes to show how the Greeks, for all their wordliness, lived in more innocent times.

Working with what seems to have been an extremely generous budget, director Steven Little and his creative team have given an Olympian look to the production. (Rarely, or never, has Jerusalem looked so Greek.) Set and costume designer Nicolai Hart Hansen has created an environment that resembles the side of a marble temple, with a slightly askew doorway biting into slate-grey walls. Dividing the walls horizontally, as if following the path of the fence at present being erected across Israel, is a jagged crack that's very symbolic, indeed. Hansen, whose taste appears to be impeccable, has color-coordinated a wardrobe that favors shades of grey, maroon, and green; he has even dressed Medea in a wine-red frock with piping that echoes the wall's ominous crack. This is design on a high level, and it's matched by Jane Watkins's atmospheric musical compositions, Michael Graetzer's sound design, and Thom Weaver's lighting pattern. (There's a lovely effect at the end involving that crack in the convincingly thick wall.)

Would that the actors rose to the Dome-of-the-Rock heights reached by the design troupe. They don't, and the fault may lie with director Little. All too frequently, he's asked the players to position themselves as if they were figures on a Grecian urn -- and, believe you me, the result is not worthy of a Keats ode. While Greek friezes may be evocatively illustrative, they don't lend themselves to kinetic drama. The stylization has a distancing effect; the audience concentrates on the look of what's happening, not on the feel.

Rebecca Wisocky and Sean Haberlein Medea in Jerusalem(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
Rebecca Wisocky and Sean Haberle
in Medea in Jerusalem
(Photo © Benjamin Heller)
Likewise, the cast members seem distanced from their roles. The condition afflicts Rebecca Wisocky's Medea most. Recently seen in the Big Dance Theatre's rendition of Mac Wellman's Antigone, Wisocky is a physically stunning Medea. That she comes from dance is not a surprise, and for reasons that go beyond her résumé; the red hair, done up in '40s style, and the high cheekbones make her a dead ringer for Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes. It's uncanny. Too often, though, Wisocky seems merely nasty and cynical when she should be furious; and when she has done the kiddies in, she misses the emotional pull. (So did the great Fiona Shaw when she brought her Medea here two seasons back.)

Hampered as much as is Wisocky by helmer Little's conceit, the others only intermittently break free enough to inspire the kind of awe and fear that Euripides set out to elicit. It's clear that few or none of them are born tragedians. Sean Haberle is helped immeasurably by having a face with the flat features of a tragedy mask. His expression when apprized of his children's fate cries for pity, but his line readings don't; they can be as flat as his features. The same can be said for Jennifer McCabe as Medea's sister (a nurse in the original) and Ariel Shafir as Medea's brother, who recounts with insufficient passion what happened when Jason and the babes reached that doomed bride. As lawyer O'Malley, Miller Lide is properly lubricious. Playing the children, Alexis Underwood and Robert Wands are seen but not heard -- a situation that would have pleased the Victorians.

In the introduction to his 1946 compilation Greek Plays in Modern Translation, the eminent authority and humorist Dudley Fitts, wrote: "When I spoke of the share of blame that teachers of the classics must assume for the disrepute into which their subject has fallen, I was thinking not of their contributions to scholarship, not of the devotion with which they have maintained the struggle in hostile waters, but of the closed-circle remoteness from reality in which so any of them contemplate literature living or dead." Kirby might have started his updating directly after reading Fitts. He's done his utmost not to let Medea languish in ancient Greece, though not everyone else connected with this production has followed suit.