The heroine of Euripides' Medea is half martyr, and half murderess - and not just any murderess, but a killer of her own children. This makes her - special, shall we say. But these days we like to dwell on the first of her personae, while only half-acknowledging the second. Which may be understandable given our current theatrical politics - we have trouble gazing directly upon women capable of filicide, and resist even the suggestion that we could grant one our theatrical sympathy; but in the end I'm afraid this basically emasculates (sorry) Medea as tragedy.
Which may be why the new staging by the Actors' Shakespeare Project feels simultaneously ferocious and somehow unfocused. The actors give it their all, and so there's always one kind of intensity on offer. But it's a vague, misdirected intensity - it seems to have been imported from some other play - largely because in the title role, Jennie Israel is all martyr, and no murderess - even though she does off her kids in a splashily gory manner. Too bad we can still see. despite all the stage blood, that she has closed herself off from the act internally, and is unable to allow herself to experience her crime as the "triumph" it is.
This is probably a compliment to Ms. Israel, of course; for the actress who successfully limns Medea must find her way to, and back from, emotional places it's generally ill-advised to contemplate or speak of, much less experience. Not that she's a mystery; indeed, perhaps we understand her all too well. The character has certainly been wronged by her husband Jason - for whom Medea gave up literally everything in her former life, but who now has abandoned her for a younger wife. So she has our sympathy, and there's a clear way for an actress to enter her frame of mind - until she begins to plan her revenge. For Medea is bent not on wounding her betrayer himself, but instead in triumphing over him, "destroying" him figuratively - in winning, and being seen to have won; and thus she plots the deaths of those around her former hero, including, yes, her own children by him.
Such a choice means Medea has to be more than a little crazy - or rather demonic, in the old sense of the word; she's a witch, after all, and makes her final exit in a chariot drawn by dragons; she's in touch with literally supernatural forces of passionate ego. And perhaps it's worth mentioning that in earlier myths, Medea is a murderess several times over before Euripides picks up her story (she even killed her own brother, in some accounts, for Jason's sake).
|Photos: Stratton McCrady|
But none of this kind of intensity is forthcoming, I'm afraid, at Actors' Shakespeare Project, which under the stylized direction of David R. Gammons is something of a conceptual muddle - even if it looks terrific. The set is a house straight out of Leave it to Beaver (it even splits apart on cue), but the chorus seems to have wandered in from a Stevie Nicks concert; meanwhile Medea mopes around in mourning (at left), while her husband is dressed for his wedding. And did I mention the blinking chandelier? There's a justification for all these choices, actually, but somehow these variegated visual gambits never seem to cohere. And it doesn't help that director Gammons - who was a designer before he became a director - tends to resort to dumb show to put over what the actors should be conveying in their performances. (When Jason first appears, for instance, he and Medea do an awkward roll in the hay to communicate that there's still sexual tension between them.)
There are good moments in several of the performances - including Israel's - but perhaps only Joel Colodner's amusing turn as Aegeus really comes together (Nigel Gore does his best as the smarmily calculating Jason, but he's miscast; he's simply not slick enough). But I don't really expect a Gammons cast to do their best work, I'm afraid - at least not in a piece as thorny as Medea. This director is always busy around town, I know, but behind the visual flash of his productions, I too often feel a dramatic void. I know for a lot of people the flash is enough; I'm just not one of them.