Maddy: A Modern Day Medea / The Swan Song
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 7, 2009
2,500 years after the fact, it's difficult to imagine the impact that the great Greek tragedies might have had on their audiences. Fundamental human emotions transcend time, but fundamental belief systems often do not; the connections to a pantheon of gods, to nature, and to the mercurial hand of destiny parse very differently for us than they must have for our ancestors sitting on a hillside watching a play like Euripides's Medea.
So I'm fascinated and excited by Will Le Vasseur's remarkable new play, Maddy. Billed as "a modern day Medea," this taut, smart, and very intense one-act captures what's at the heart of this legend in a thrillingly contemporary and accessible way. The story and themes have never made more sense to me. Maddy is receiving its NYC premiere on a double bill with Anton Chekhov's short The Swan Song, presented by Redd Tale Theatre Company (of which Le Vasseur is co-artistic director). It's impressive in every department, from acting to direction to design.
Maddy shifts the famous story of Medea from ancient Corinth to the Corinthian Trailer Park in a small town somewhere in the American South. Here resides the title character, who is very much both protagonist and heroine in this rendering. At the beginning of the play, a man named Alan is speaking with Maddy; their conversation ends with him telling her she has until sundown to make her decision. Soon we start to understand what is at stake for her: her husband, Billy-Jay, is going to marry the daughter of the richest man in town this afternoon, and he wants to bring their two sons to live with him. Maddy asks her neighbor Flo whether she, in a similar circumstance, would seek retribution against the husband who is leaving her high and dry, a husband whom she still loves and for whom she gave up almost everything important in her life till now. (Flo admits that if there were no obstacles to doing so, she would certainly take revenge. Who would not?)
I don't want to give too much more away of Le Vasseur's ingenious play. If you know how Medea plays out, then you can guess what will happen here, but there are nonetheless several surprises. Le Vasseur's transposition accounts for the otherworldliness of Medea, who was supposedly a sorceress or witch, after all; it also gets right to the point of this scary myth, which is that one should not tamper with destiny or nature or the elements (call this greater power around/above us what you will). The climax of the play is thrillingly staged and the ending is pretty unexpected.
Le Vasseur has directed the piece himself, and he's done a beautiful job with it. One of the smartest ideas he adopts is to limit the onstage cast to just five (with some offstage recorded voices); the children and Billy-Jay's intended bride are never seen, which is economical in terms of stagecraft as well as indie theater producing. The set, designed by Le Vasseur, is modeled on the temples we associate with with classical Greek drama, only here it's the front door of Maddy's trailer—brilliant. Lynn Kenny is terrific as Maddy (though it takes time to warm up to her, given her foreignness in this remote town). Blaine Pennington is fine as the handsome, grasping Billy-Jay, and James Stewart is suitably enigmatic as Alan. Heather Shields is the show's anchor—our guide into the play's off-kilter world—as Flo, who functions as a combination Nurse/Chorus character.
After a brief intermission, the evening resumes with The Swan Song. Here Le Vasseur further displays his versatility by appearing onstage as Vasili Svietlovidoff, an aged actor who has fallen asleep in his dressing room and now finds himself alone in the closed, darkened theatre. This piece, which was unfamiliar to me (a rare gift: a Chekhov play I hadn't already seen!), is a celebration and sly ribbing of the excesses of actors. Vasili, drunk and alone, wallows for a while in his unhappiness, but then rouses himself by performing excerpts from plays like Lear and Hamlet. He is a man who is only alive when he performs, and Chekhov reminds us that that kind of thing isn't only true of thespians. It's a brief, touching, funny piece, providing a tour de force opportunity for Le Vasseur (who, no more than half the character's age in real life, convinces us that he's 68). Ben Strothmann lends able support as Nikita, the prompter who encounters old Vasili and keeps him company. Lynn Kenny's staging is resourceful and honest.
The Swan Song and Maddy have in common only their rich humanity, yet they make for a fine and full evening of theatre. Redd Tale, just two years in New York, is a company to watch. And triple threat Le Vasseur is a talent to keep an eye on as well.