nytheatre.com review by Jane Titus
May 12, 2010
Theater Mitu's production of Medea is stunning visually. The set, lighting, and costume design are wonderful examples of what can be done in a small space with imagination and vision. All the physical elements of this production are highly sculptural and appealing.
The company is obviously very talented and highly dedicated to creating quality theatre. I was impressed with the talent in all aspects of theatrical art. But in the dramaturgy and direction of the piece, I am not sure that the tragic nature of the piece was fully explored.
For a company so dedicated to the visual aspect of theatre, sometimes I wondered if all the elements were actually helping the actors tell their story or if they were at times impeded by the design. This is a tricky line to play with in the theatre, which is a visual as well as kinetic art. The set is a box within a box. The entire play is staged within a very small interior. This compresses the play in an interesting way. Greek tragedy was written to be performed outdoors and has the size and energy of great expansion. To stage it in such a small area is like compressing a spring—I wanted and needed moments where the drama released after all the compression. After all, Greek tragedy is about man's relationship to the gods. Each play addresses in some way man's relationship to the universe. In most productions, Medea comes out of her house to address the Chorus. In this production, the entire action of the play takes place inside Medea's home.
One of the basic principles in the Greek tragic form is that at the end of the play there is a cathartic moment where the human players undergo a transformation and reach a new level of consciousness. In this production, that moment never happens for Medea. The actor playing Medea plays her subservience and abjectness quite well. I never got any of her fierce joy or triumph, even her towering rage that is described in the text. A choice was made for the actor playing Medea to be entirely nude throughout the production. Perhaps this was intended to point out her vulnerability, her loss of attachment to society that is represented by clothes. What came across eloquently was her shame and fear and pain. What I missed were her moments of sardonic humor, her power, and her ascension to another realm of consciousness at the end of the play. Nudity can be highly evocative not only of shame, but also of great freedom and release from all convention. I wish this latter aspect of nakedness had been explored more fully.
As a playwright, Euripides always chose to personify the outcasts, the fringe of Greek society. He does so eloquently in this play. The theme of the outsider is well developed in this particular production along with Medea's disempowerment in that culture. I did not get so much the argument between two cultures, but the defeat of one by the dominant Greek culture.
Another aspect of this production is the reverse gender casting of the main leads. Medea is played by a man (Justin Nestor) as is the nurse (Nathan Elam). The role of the nurse is conflated with the messenger that appears at the end of the play to tell what happened to Glauce and Creon. Also the roles of Jason (Aysan Celik) and Creon (Nikki Calonge) are played by women. The Chorus stays female (Aysan Celik, Jenna Gabriel, and Judi Olson) and Medea's sons are played by a man (Steven Olender). They refer to Medea as a woman and Jason as a man, so obviously the actors are supposed to portray the opposite sex. No attempt is made to disguise the fact that a man is playing a woman, or that Jason is played by a woman. I did question whether or not the actors were attempting to assume the physical life and point of view of the other sex.
All in all, this is a brave and intriguing production of Medea. The dramaturg, Chris Mills, has done a concise and clear rendering of the script. The direction by Ruben Polendo is provocative and innovative. I would not call this overall a successful production of a Greek tragedy, but it certainly is a challenging 21st century look at a classic text.