nytheatre.com review by Matt Schicker
September 29, 2005
If you’re looking for a powerful, viscerally exciting theatre experience, head to the Classical Theatre of Harlem for their production of Medea. Euripides’s harrowing drama of a woman’s bloody revenge on her husband is not for the faint-of-heart in any production, but this version, adapted and directed by CTH artistic director Alfred Preisser, raises more goosebumps and back-of-neck hairs than usual.
The spookiness begins when huge sliding doors rumble open to allow the audience to enter the theatre, an abandoned-feeling open industrial space bordered by menacing chain-link fence and scaffolding. Members of the female chorus, with eerily painted faces, stare at each person entering. The intensity of the mood continues for the next hour, with ritualistic dancing, chanting, and singing, and blood-curdling screams. The sound of daggers scraping against each other punctuates the invective, and Death, portrayed as a graceful, slinky dancer, watches from a high platform. An agitated old nurse with a trembling voice predicts that something terrible is going to happen, and this theatrical pot is ready to boil. Medea makes a dramatic entrance and the ride begins.
Preisser’s thrilling production allows the audience to connect directly to the characters’ emotions and predicaments by setting the events in a world that incorporates elements of the ancient, contemporary, and futuristic. We don’t know exactly where or when this Medea is taking place, but the personal dynamics and the patriarchal hierarchy are all too recognizable. The audience also feels immersed in the drama because the action literally happens around them. The nurse may sit next to your chair to listen to an argument taking place in the center arena, King Kreon’s robes may brush past you as he enters, and you may have to turn around to witness Medea’s terrible final act right behind you.
The basic story is familiar to most: Medea’s husband, Jason, for whom she has made many sacrifices including betraying her father and the people of her homeland, intends to abandon Medea and marry Princess Glauke, daughter of King Kreon. Kreon attempts to banish Medea, but she persuades him to grant her an extra day in Corinth, during which she confronts Jason. He assures her that their two children will be raised as royalty under his care, but this only fans the flames of Medea’s jealousy. She takes her revenge on Jason by poisoning Princess Glauke and murdering their two sons. She escapes by magic to Athens, where she has been granted safety.
The conciseness of Preisser’s adaptation of Euripides makes the impact of the drama all the more powerful. The published running time is 70 minutes, but the performance I saw was a quick hour. The “timeless” setting allows Preisser to get away with some pretty contemporary-sounding phrases that truly get the point across. It’s hard for one to imagine doing what Medea does in the end, but when Jason barks “I don’t need you, bitch,” the utter disrespect and naked hatred in those words makes you understand a little of what drives this woman to murder.
The talented members of the cast make a tight ensemble. April Yvette Thompson is small of stature, but as Medea her reserve of emotional power and her expressive voice make a big impression. Lawrence Winslow’s Jason, with his powerful physique having gone slightly to seed, is a self-centered man facing midlife crisis. As Kreon, Earle Hyman’s magnetic presence and sonorous voice are indeed kingly. Husky-voiced Zainab Jah is a lithe, slinky, disturbing embodiment of Death, and her erotically-charged dance with Medea is an eloquent depiction of the fateful moment when Medea decides to kill her two small boys. The boys are played by Brian Gilbert and Laron Griffin, two young actors whose concentration and commitment show promise; they also get to exercise their powerful lungs in the murder scene. Juanita Howard’s nurse is the embodiment of worry. The ensemble, which includes three haunting Fates and a female chorus who observe and comment on the tragic events, provides much of the tense atmosphere with movement, chanting, and singing. The only weakness in any of the performances is that occasionally a word or two is lost due to volume or articulation.
Preisser has assembled a creative team whose contributions all are totally in line with his vision of Medea. Christopher A. Thomas’s setting is appropriately cold and bleak, and his rolling scaffold unit that becomes Medea’s “chariot” at the end is an inspired solution. Kimberly Glennon’s costumes, like the adaptation of the play itself, effectively combine the ancient and the modern. K.J. Hardy’s lighting design is alternately stark and moody, plunging us into the mood of each sequence. Much of the suspense of the piece is created by Kelvyn Bell’s music and Tracy Jack’s earthy choreography.