nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
January 16, 2005
Classical Greek tragedy is full of oracles, foreshadowing, and the notion of predestination; the audience can see something terrible unfolding inexorably but is not necessarily aware of what that awful fate will be. Classic murder mysteries, on the other hand, begin with the awful fate—someone is dead—and the story is a process of working backwards to unravel the cause of that tragedy. I’d never thought about the parallel between the two genres until I saw The Medea.
The Medea begins with a devastated Jason, lying amidst the wreckage of his life—his children, his new bride, and the king of Corinth, his protector, are all dead, all slaughtered by his former wife. The journey of the play is not, as in more familiar versions, from Medea’s rejection and exile from Corinth to Medea’s revenge on all those who reject her, but from the discovery and aftermath of a crime to its root cause. We know who did the crime, since early in the play we see Medea dragging the bodies of her sons out of her house and displaying them to Jason. But we are in theory finding out what motivated this woman who, at the beginning of the play seems to be a monster who coldly and dispassionately stabbed her two sons to death.
In actuality, although the backwards storytelling is intellectually interesting, I’m not sure it serves the character of Medea well. Director Jay Scheib’s narrative innovation does succeed in bringing pathos to the end of his play, because we’ve already seen the terrible effects that will be wrought by the seemingly simple actions taken at this point (the end of the play, beginning of the story). But inverting the chronology creates barriers to feeling any kind of empathy or even compassion for Medea. It’s hard to even want to understand her, after we’ve first seen her kill her children and throw their murder in her husband’s face, and then heard the Nurse (the excellent Aimee McCormick) describe the deaths of King Creon and his daughter, Jason’s bride, in excruciating detail—another set of heinous crimes committed by Medea.
Zishan Ugurlu’s Medea seems cold and curiously dispassionate at the beginning, since we don’t yet know about the various events that have made her shut off her emotions to allow herself to perform these terrible acts. In contrast, Dan Illian’s feverishly emotional Jason gains in sympathy by making his first appearance as the man who’s lost everything. Yes, the more complicated layers are revealed later, but the setup profoundly changes the audience’s relationship with Medea and with Jason—and I’m not entirely sure that’s a good thing for the play.
Despite my mixed feelings about the emotional impact of the central conceit, though, I found much of the production exhilarating and fascinating. Scheib’s script freely mixes Seneca and Euripides with radically different adaptations of Medea by the nineteenth-century Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer and the twentieth-century German writer Heiner Muller. The mix of language makes The Medea seem fresh even to those who are deeply familiar with the play (and I think having familiarity with the play definitely helps in appreciating what Scheib has done with it).
I found it deeply unsettling but effective to see Medea’s sons as beautiful adolescents rather than small boys, as I’ve always seen before. Although Oleg and Dima Dubson rarely speak (except when playing their second roles of Aegeus and Creon respectively), they have powerful presences, and the family dynamic is drastically changed by having the sons be closer to adulthood than babyhood.
The staging is also innovative and subtly adds another layer to the mystery-story concept. A large section of the stage, representing Medea’s home, is walled off into a realistically furnished and decorated room that is only visible in glimpses, when characters enter or leave it by the downstage door. Yet the room is wired with several video cameras that feed to monitors on stage, so the audience seems to see and hear much of what goes on inside the closed space. Video director and designer Leah Gelpe is a tangible, sometimes visible presence, circling with her camera(s) and giving us tantalizing peeks into parts of the story that are otherwise hidden from view. But we can never be entirely sure whether we’re seeing live video or previously recorded tapes—so we can never be entirely sure whether we’re seeing the behind-closed-doors truth, someone’s interpretation of that truth, or something that never happened.
Like the central concept, the staging can be frustrating; it conceals and obscures as much as it reveals, and it creates challenges for the audience in understanding and reacting emotionally to the story. But the piece overall provides much food for thought and makes a familiar work seem new, rich, and strange again.