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Zishan Ugurlu and Dima Dubson in The Medea
(Video capture © Leah Gelpe)
Director-adaptor Jay Scheib's The Medea seeks to bring new meaning to the famous story by playing the action in reverse. However, this is no Merrily We Roll Along or Betrayal. While Scheib's structure mimics the chronology of those stage works, the result is far more experimental -- and much less entertaining.

Medea is most (in)famous as the legendary figure from Greek tragedy who kills her two sons after being betrayed by her husband, Jason. Scheib's production begins with the murders already accomplished. Jason (Dan Illian) lies on the ground with his head bloodied, intoning a speech about death drawn from Heiner Müller's Medeamaterial. Each successive scene takes a step backwards in time. The text is composed of passages from Müller as well as Euripides, Seneca, and other sources. In a program note, Scheib writes that what he wants to accomplish with the reverse chronology is a feeling of suspense, an examination of what led Medea to commit her horrible deed. However, the production itself is rather tedious; though it's interesting on an intellectual level, it rarely stirs the emotions.

As Medea, Zishan Ugurlu has a strong stage presence and a vaguely European accent that is difficult to pinpoint. Costumed like a gypsy by designer Oana Botez-Ban, she is strikingly out of synch with the militaristic uniform worn by Jason and the shirts and ties worn by her sons. Scheib has underscored Medea's position as a foreigner. The fact that her sons are played by grown men (Dima Dubson and Oleg Dubson) further shows us that she has not assimilated into Jason's society despite many years of living within it.

Illian is quietly riveting in his opening monologue but less convincing when Jason flies into a rage. As the nurse, Aimee McCormick speaks the majority of her lines rather flatly and indicates emotions in an amateurish way (I could not decide whether this was done purposefully or not). Medea's sons have a greater presence in this production than in any other Medea I've seen, and the Dubsons -- who are real-life brothers -- have a quirky way of moving about that makes them oddly compelling.

As the play progresses, Scheib allows the characters to become more self aware of the conventions of the production. Two video cameras are set up within an enclosed room on stage, and they document the action through live feeds. (The video design is by Leah Gelpe.) After a few scenes, Medea starts speaking directly to the camera, while her sons and the nurse watch some of the action on the two monitors positioned at the front of the stage. Several characters begin to dance to the music composed and performed by Margareth Kammerer, who wanders through various scenes but whose presence is not always acknowledged by the other players.

Scheib's deconstruction of Medea is further enhanced by the repetition of a key scene -- namely, the murders of Medea's sons. The second portrayal of their death throws the entire work into confusion, for if they died in this scene they should not have been around in the previous one, which supposedly occurred afterwards.

Despite such fragmentation of text and action, the performance drags, and the production does not have a consistent tone. There are moments that seem unintentionally funny or just so bizarre that one can't help but laugh. Some scenes are played in a heavy-handed, melodramatic style; at other times, the actors deliver their speeches in a low-key style, amplified by microphones. It's obvious that Scheib has been influenced by such postmodern, avant-garde companies as The Wooster Group, but he's failed to use these borrowed techniques in such a way as to bring new meaning to a familiar tale.

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