Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Medea, Actors' Shakespeare Project

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
So Medea is bad news, and this makes her in many ways a problematic tragic heroine.  She doesn't even die at the end of her "tragedy" - instead, she gets away with a horrific crime.  So it's no surprise I've only seen the play work as tragedy one time - and that was when the actress devoted herself to her own horror at what she knew she was capable of, indeed was even planning.  This gave the script a remorseless momentum - and tellingly, at the finale, in her triumph over her faithless husband, this Medea seemed to be literally out of her mind.  Her own personality had driven itself over the edge; in a way she had died.

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.


  1. I strongly disagree with your assessment of Gammons, who I think does a fine job making great works accessible to a broad audience, emphasis on broad. But my main disagreement with your review is that, contrary to your suggestion, I think Medea cannot by means of any trick of acting/direction be staged as a tragedy for the simple reason that it is not one. Of course, in the customary categorization of ancient Greek plays, Medea is designated as a tragedy, but I think in fact Euripides, that great innovator, has created here the first horror story -- especially horrible because it echoes reality.

    You note that, in some accounts (and, let me add, in the text of the play) Medea has previously killed her brother in order to give Jason time to escape her father's kingdom. So this is a woman who kills as a matter of course -- I mean, really, after one kills one's brother (to achieve a goal) is it so surprising that one would kill one's children (also to achieve a goal, in this case to hurt one's ex-husband)?

    Regarding Jennie Israel's performance, I don't think she plays this role (and indeed, she would be hard-pressed to succeed in playing it) as "all martyr." Her character's line that she needs to kill their children because "it is the way to hurt him most" precludes rationally viewing her as simply a victim. And, in her argument with Jason after the killings, Medea makes clear, over and again, that she has killed the children to do maximum. long-term damage to this man she wants to punish, and she is therefore satisfied with her actions. Medea has no revelation at the conclusion of this play -- a requirement of tragedy -- and therefore it seemed to me that Jennie Israel presented her end-lines perfectly: she is coldly vindictive to the end. Thus her Medea (and I think Euripides' Medea) is not martyr but monster. That is, as the ASJ's publicity suggests, the point of their production is that human beings become monstrous when, in response to perceived wrongs, they turn into machines of vengeance. That this has meaning for our lives should be clear to anyone who has observed divorces, in which it is so common for the parent who fancies her/himself as wronged to psychologically abuse (if not kill) the children as a way of punishing the object of fury. (Sometimes extended families get involved in the fun.) Killing can be done without the sword.

  2. Sorry, but Gammons is over-rated - he's all flash and little actual substance. I agree he's good with stuff that's in his sweet spot, i.e., "dark" and goth-y, with some depth but not too much, and splashy, cinematic set-pieces of gore or threatened violence. (I knew, for instance, that Gammons wouldn't be able to resist actually showing us the bloody death throes of Medea's children, and he more than delivered.) And that's okay as a commercial niche, of course, but in my experience, whenever Gammons has been in charge of a complex text, he has misunderstood and mis-directed it to some degree - often so he can get to his creepy images more quickly - and usually has misled his leading actors in the process (and sometimes he can't even penetrate pretty straightforward stuff like "Blackbird"). What you get instead of insight with Gammons is an overlay of post-adolescent "intensity" - and it's always the same kind of intensity, no matter what the play is. That's fine for "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," but it's not for "Medea."

    As for your arguments on "Medea" - well, it's certainly an unusual tragedy, but in the end I think it's still a tragedy. I think what has thrown you is the play's lack of an "anagnorisis," the technical term for the moment of epiphany in which the tragic hero suddenly perceives his or her true situation. The trouble is that Medea is never in the dark about anything, like Oedipus, or Othello, or Macbeth, or even Hamlet - and yet she fully appreciates the moral horror of her decisions. So in a way almost the whole play operates as a long, suspended moment of anagnorisis. I understand you might see that as just a kind of technical critical trick - and so might I, if I hadn't experienced it work in a previous production.

    As for your assessment of Israel's performance - really, you saw crazed triumph and madness in her eyes? Because I didn't. I mean Israel says the lines, sure; that doesn't mean she's embodying them. Which leads me to another point about the immaturity of Gammons' perspective. You rarely see a sense of self-aware subtext in his work; his characters are basically teen-aged versions of themselves, they never can acknowledge their own culpability in their situations. In "Red," Thomas Derrah missed the deepening despair that led to Rothko's suicide. In "Blackbird," Marianna Bassham never keyed into her character's self-awareness that she was re-enacting her own sexual abuse; Ben Evett found no through-line through "Cherry Docs," and Israel fumbled herself through Gammons' "Duchess of Malfi." Of course all those shows were intense. But they were also superficial. Like "Medea."

  3. I have just seen the performance of Mrs Israel. Well I liked it. It was kind of a modern Medea : a Medea that transforms her passion which should normally be viewed as something very shamful (it's an understatment), to something very intellectual and logic. We are all reassured by these "scientific" almost and very eloquent arguments. Could the spectator not see the children , we would willingly believe that Medea's murder is no more than a kind of abortion... oh sorry I must have hurt the pro choice people. Medea is a very modern woman.

  4. I just saw the closing performance of Medea and I have no idea what you saw, but clearly we did not see the same production. There are so many layers to these performances, to the design, to the very essence of the production that I found my head spinning by the end with possibility. The journey that Israel takes is astonishing-she fights to the very end for herself, for her rights, for the very essence of her humanity. She is never a victim, she is in grief and agony and actively so. She doesn't shrink from one moment of it and is staggering in her denoument. She and Gore as Jason create a relationship that I have never seen before in this play- a real relationship is manifested and lived through so that its demise is actually something that could shatter a world, as it did in this production today.
    I have only read a few of your reviews because they are often simplistic and dismissive, but it does seem that you simply don't like David Gammons- as successful as he seems to be. Could it be a bit of envy rearing its head?
    In any case, MY case is for the artistry of the human soul which I witnessed today. May it subsist in all its glory.

  5. Whaddya know, another anonymous person who just loved this "Medea"! I wonder if I didn't like it simply because I have a name and am unafraid to sign my own opinions? Hmmmm . . .

    Actually maybe it's a good idea that you remained anonymous. Because when you blither things like "so-and-so fights to the very end for herself, for her rights, for the very essence of her humanity," rest assured you sound like an idiot. Points though, for the image of an actress "staggering in her denou[e]ment." (Whoops! She's down, must have tripped on her denouement, folks! That must have hurt!)

    But alas, points taken back for the really tedious "You're a critic because you're jealous!" line (particularly via the hilariously retro "rearing its ugly head!" gambit). If I'm ever jealous of an artist, trust me, I'll be jealous of a successful one.

  6. how funny. Me. Gammons acquires Elliot Norton awards and works all over town constantly while you sit in your house and get 3 responses to your "writing", all possibly from the same person?

  7. Right, first I was "just jealous," now I'm "blogging in my underwear." Goodness, which dated cliché will you pick next? I'm on the edge of my seat here in my office!

    It's true, of course, that Gammons hits the middlebrow sweet spot that the Norton writers adore. So I advise you to read them from now on. Happy trails!

    There's one thing about you that intrigues me, however - that "Me. Gammons" typo. Hmmmm. Nahhh, couldn't be!