Just as Jeune Lune's production of Medea opens for its run, Andrea Yates is on trial in Houston, Texas for drowning her five children in a bathtub. Though I'm sure there have been numerous instances in the last ten years of fathers slaying their children, I can't think of any specific case. None has captured the media spotlight quite like Andrea Yates of Texas; or Susan Smith of South Carolina, who drowned her two sons in a lake; or Khoua Her of Minnesota, who strangled each of her six children with a black ribbon. In his Poetics, Aristotle states that the tragedy as an art form is designed to incite fear and pity in the audience. The idea of a mother killing her own children incites perhaps the most fear and pity of any story we can imagine.
Since Medea is just such a story, I wondered if this production might take advantage of contemporary echoes, using, for example, a talk show audience as a chorus. No such luck. Instead, this Medea is a gothic melodrama, full of haunting atmosphere and interesting performances, but ultimately free of much provocation.
The atmosphere is established by the set and lighting (Dominique Serrand), which are gloomy and foreboding. Medea's house looks like it's crumbling, as though these Greeks are already living in ruins. Then, within the first few minutes of the play, we are introduced to the secret weapon (or secret weakness, depending on your point of view): Janet Gottschall Fried as The Singer. The Singer is not a character who appears in the text of Euripides' play (i.e. she is not the Chorus), and she doesn't speak in the course of this production. She only sings, performing bits of opera by Shostakovich and others, as well as occasionally playing one piano or banging and scraping the exposed strings of another piano that's been turned on it's side in a corner of the stage. What makes her role in this production so distinctive is that while she's ostensibly a character in the play, one of Medea's servants, she functions as a kind of medium, channeling the emotions of Medea and the other female characters into song. Her voice is extraordinary: it can be haunting, or shrill, or wavering with fragility. But ultimately, she is overused as a device. Whenever something especially unfortunate happens to Medea, The Singer begins to shriek, or to pound on the overturned piano, and the drama feels forced.
The device of The Singer might have worked better if the other actors gave subdued performances, but everyone's working at a fever pitch. Jeune Lune bills itself as a particularly "physical" company, and there is a great deal of frantic movement throughout the play. Some of this works to give one a sense of panic, but after the fourth or fifth time an actor claws at a wall or writhes on the ground it grows exhausting.
That said, there are certainly several good performances, not the least of which are the male performers. But both Allen Hamilton (as King Creon) and Vincent Gracieux (as the wayward husband Jason) give nuanced portraits of masculinity run amok. Hamilton's Creon is all belligerent bluster as he orders Medea to leave his country, but just as he finishes shouting he reveals himself as an exhausted shell of a ruler, who's frankly quite frightened of this intelligent, foreign woman. Gracieux's Jason is a more comical figure, and seems, in his self-absorption, to be aware neither of the role Medea played in his previous success, nor in the level of suffering he is causing her. He isn't truly demonic, merely puffed up with arrogance. Still, one can't wait to see Medea apply the needle.
What surprised me most was how willing I was to accept it as a given that Medea is justified in her revenge. Part of the reason I could was Barbra Berlovitz's performance. Berlovitz is able to portray Medea as sad and sexy, smart and unhinged, vengeful and regretful. But the best moment of the play comes when Medea drools over the details of her revenge, specifically the murder of the princess whom her husband was about to marry. As the messenger begins to describe the princess's horrific death by poison, Medea bursts into song (she's the only character who sings, other than The Singer), and her triumph is downright chilling.
It's the only moment in the play when the audience is asked to question its assumptions. Up until that point, we are encouraged to sympathize entirely with Medea, even though she's about to do the unthinkable: kill her two sons to hurt her disloyal husband. But suddenly, as she sings in perverse joy over the death of a young princess, revenge doesn't look quite so attractive. I wish the play had continued in this unsettling direction. Unfortunately, as she prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice, Medea shows remorse at killing her sons, and the murder itself is glossed over. In the text of the play, the sons are heard calling out for mercy as their mother slays them. In Jeune Lune's version, all we hear is a brief cry, which is soon drowned out by The Singer.
What's interesting is that director Steven Epp apparently felt he needed to stack the play in favor of Medea as victim rather than criminal. The impulse is understandable; it should be difficult to sympathize with Medea. But it isn't difficult. We, the modern and mostly liberal audience who attend theater, hate oppressive men so much that we're willing to grant Medea any benefit of the doubt. I think the play would have been much more interesting had it forced us to squirm a bit more over our generous sympathy with a killer of children.
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