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A CurtainUp Review
by Eric Beckson
First staged in 2002, Alfred Preisser's adaptation (he also directs) does not alter the basic elements of the Greek myth. Prior to the opening scene (and recounted in part by the chorus), Medea, the granddaughter of Helios (the sun deity) and niece of the sorceress Circe helps Jason (with her spells and potions) to win the sought after Golden Fleece. But in the process, she abandons and betrays her father, and kills her brother.
Medea begins in the middle of things. The ungrateful Jason (Lawrence Winslow), although husband to Medea (April Thompson), has decided to abandon her and marry King Creon's daughter. Creon, fearing Medea's wrath, allows her one hour to leave Corinth. With cold calculation, Medea persuades Creon to grant her not one hour but one day. Jason tries to appease Medea by offering to raise their two children as royalty in the Corinthian palace. But Medea, consumed with rage, poisons the King and his daughter, and kills her (and Jason's) two children.
Walking into the theater through large sliding doors painted to resemble riveted steel, and seeing the Corinthian women on stage, wearing face paint and leather strappings, is an arresting sight. When the doors close behind the entrance of Death, The Fates and Medea, one feels sealed into the ancient world, as well as trapped in an oversized meat locker.
The square stage itself is book ended by the audience, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The lighting, at times dazzling and helpful to the drama, is generally effective, but the extremely bright horizontal lights are blinding. And looking at actors and seeing rows of an audience behind them can be terribly distracting, especially when Medea is delivering an impassioned speech in front of a seated woman wearing sweats and a Yankee cap. (Perhaps it wouldn't matter so much if we weren't in such a close pennant race.)
Preisser introduces allegorical characters to represent the fatalistic thinking of the ancient Greeks (notably, all played by women): Death (Aainab Jah), and three Fates (Ebbe Bassey, Tisza Cher-rie Evans and Shamika Cotton). Death is an athletic dancer, lithe and powerful. The Fates are slow, purposeful and robed, and one carries a dagger. Their costumes and physical movement enrich the stage, as do the Corinthian women (chorus), who wear face paint and leather strappings. The presence of so many women on stage is an appropriate irony, since Medea is treated poorly by Jason not only because she is a non-Greek (without any rights), but because she is a woman.
Preisser introduces other, more controversial elements that may be intended to render Medea more sympathetic than intended. Euripides characterizes Medea as so hateful and filled with rage in response to her husband's betrayal that she even hates her children. Yet Preisser's Medea retains a mother's love for her children-until she stabs them to death. And Preisser's murder scene takes place conveniently off stage, where the children do not speak the plaintiff lines Euripides wrote for them.
Other changes in dialogue create an unwanted casual air, and some lines seem ad libbed. "I don't need you bitch", spoken by Jason (Lawrence Winslow), may be contemporary, but it doesn't belong to Jason, who is articulate and rational (too rational), making argument after argument to justify his decisions. And when those words, "I don't need you bitch", are spoken so matter-of-factly by the bare-chested Winslow, one can imagine that he has just re-entered his house after washing his SUV and is disturbed at finding an ex-girlfriend in the kitchen making pancakes.
Medea has her own drearily commonplace response to Jason, after killing their children and mounting a plain scaffold (rather than the chariot drawn by winged dragons called for by Euripides): "Call me what you like…I'm done here." Her resentment and vindictiveness, as well as her commentary on Jason's cold, selfish logic, are better expressed by Euripides' line: "You have gambled and lost.". But perhaps Euripides' line doesn't suit Thompson's short hair and triple snapping feminist attitude.
In any case, Thompson's Medea lacks the frightfulness to justify Creon's premonition, and this is partly due to Preisser's changes, as well as her own limitations. Still, with forceful speech and self-assuredness, Thompson captures our attention if not the level of hostility that makes Medea so dangerous. Lawrence, with his chiseled physique and booming voice, portrays the heartless, imperious Jason lost in logic and smugness, but there is something rather ordinary about him.
Even though Creon has fewer than two dozen lines, Hyman's intensity is magnificent. When great acting and great drama come together, and it doesn't happen often, it's wondrous.
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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