BWW Review: MEDEA Finds Reality Amidst Shadows and Sprites at Seton Hill
The ancient Greeks weren't terribly high-concept in their theatrical ambitions for tragedy, and that simplicity of form is what contributes to their continuing mythic power. A character experiences a fall from grace, and the play as it unfolds focuses primarily on decision, debate and rationalization, not on the events and actions that drive plot in the conventional sense. Sadness, fear and anger wash through the collective emotional response of the audience, and everyone goes home more at peace than they had before the show. It's pretty cookie-cutter, as anything which survives millennia has to be. So what are we to make of a Medea that chops and screws with the notion of Aristotelian drama altogether?
I rarely write reviews of college productions. Only when I feel like digging into a specific show as a critic do I make the effort. Naturally, I couldn't pass up the infamously weighty Greek tragedy, especially as directed by Melissa Hill Grande, whose work I have followed in the area. As I watched the show progress, observing both performances and artistic design, I had a strange feeling of familiarity, almost a homecoming. Why did this specific production feel so lived-in to me, so specific to my own experiences and memories? Then the concept- or at least my conception of Grande's concept, which may be less specific than my imagining- clicked into place, and my attention to detail paid off.
Grande's Medea appears to take place neither in ancient Greece nor the modern world. It is not anywhere or anywhen, but anyHOW, as this production appears to take place in a slightly outmoded digital world. From the lo-fi electronic music used in preshow and underscoring, to the gritty, earth-tone textures and polygonal architecture of the sets, and especially in the slightly avant-garde, angular and monochromatic costumes of the characters, the effect created reminded me overwhelmingly of fifth-generation video games. The Corinthian characters move not stiffly but with stillness and a conservation of movement. Their movements are measured, precise and often performed in strange, almost stiff unison, like sprite characters in an early Playstation or Nintendo 64 game. Even their facial makeup contains broad black contouring, giving their face the angular, stark shapes of a polygonal sprite character. Corinth is, in effect, a virtual world, and not a very advanced one.
In keeping with the deep digital throwback nature of the production, our Jason (Cameron Nickel) is not the hulking barbarian warlord so often portrayed in retellings of Greek mythology. Here, Jason is less Conan and more Loki: a lean, lithe, sarcastic viper of a man, who may appear effete at first but is never without an undercurrent both of sex and of violence. Anyone who grew up playing Final Fantasy, Ogre Battle or countless other Japanese-created video games or television series will recognize this "lancer" character archetype; millennials who missed that era will no doubt also recognize shades of Glenn Howerton as Dennis Reynolds in Nickel's smirking, vaguely sociopathic performance. Here is a man not driven by honor, or even by sex, but purely by his own blind ambitions.
The Chorus of Corinthian women is (are? Does the Chorus count as a singular or plural entity?) peculiarly characterless. Though their position as women of Corinth is set in stone, the play, or at least Frederic Raphael and Kenneth MacLeish's translation, never lets them stagnate into a single characterization or point of view. Rather, they become devil's advocates, sometimes opposing Medea, sometimes befriending her. Their shifting opinions and morality never coalesce into a distinct point of view, tending instead towards whatever position will best prompt forward motion of Medea's downward spiral.
And now we can talk about Medea, the single most important element in any legitimate production of Medea. Elena Falgione (recent third-place champion of Pittsburgh's prestigious Campus Superstar singing competition) has developed a knack for dominating the stage in every role she plays. Whether playing a tragic British lover in The Hollow or an optimistic sad-sack as Sweet Charity, Falgione locates an essential humanity in every character she plays. This, paradoxically, makes her an unusual choice to play Medea, a frequently inhuman character in a theatrical genre which is rarely known for its three-dimensional characters and humanistic performances. Falgione's Medea may perform acts of witchcraft and brutality in the course of the evening, but it's all too easy to forget that she is a card-carrying witch-queen barbarian.
Dressed in bright, heavily textured clothing that sets her aside from the rest of Kristina Miller's stark, stylized costume design, Falgione is a three-dimensional organic being in a world of sprites only just reaching their third-dimensional renditions. Her movements are fluid, rounded and spontaneous, as opposed to the minimalist and synchronized movements of the Corinthians. Where their facial expressions and speech patterns are clipped and stylized, she speaks and explores a wide emotional range. Medea's first scene and entrance, howling with rage offstage and entering in a fury of mixed emotions, felt almost grotesque at the play's beginning, so different was this tempestuous figure from the measured, mannered world she inhabited. So much of Falgione's performance comes from her eyes, face and voice, a polar opposite to the ancient Greek tradition of mask work and declamatory posturing.
The men who interact with Medea- and with the exception of Angela Mazzocco as her Nurse, it's all men- exist primarily to show different sides of Medea's reactions to the events she has premeditated and carried out. Against Kreon (James Scharer), the scowling and bigoted ruler of Corinth, she grovels, begs, hates herself and him at the same time. Against Aigeus (Travis Miller), king of Athens and her only ally left, she opens up with a friendliness and warmth that no one else in the play can elicit from her. And against her children (the silent Lindsey Grant and Mia Jordan) she finds a deeply troubling artificial jollity and love... or, even worse, an authentic motherly affection which is still weaker than her need to hurt the man who hurt her.
Medea, as directed by Grande and portrayed by Falgione, is not the bloodthirsty demigoddess or seductive succubus seen in so many tellings and retellings of the story. Those who like their Medeas bloodstained and bare-breasted on a dragon's back (yes, Diana Rigg, we're all thinking of your infamous topless scene) will find precious little titillation in this cerebral production. There is a longing between Falgione's Medea and Nickel's Jason, but it isn't quite erotic passion- it feels more like the codependent, dysfunctional sparks of a long-term emotionally abusive relationship. Medea's relative strength in dealing with her own fears, the patriarchy and the gods are only heightened and intensified when we see her in a demeaning, belittling relationship with a man who dismisses her as a wife, a magician, and a sexual partner with equally off-hand disdain. The domestic, psychological drama of Medea takes the forefront in this production more than the histrionic elements of epic tragedy... not an easy feat for a play which famously contains acts of witchcraft and child murder.
Which brings us to the one element which puzzled and provoked me while watching, and continues to puzzle and provoke me two days later: the central viewpoint of the production. What are we to make of Medea, a triple minority as woman/immigrant/pagan, who commits a seemingly unthinkable act and gets away with it? The Raphael/MacLeish translation leans heavily on the plight of women under the patriarchy, but Medea is a difficult, almost unplayable character. She must make us believe not only that she is in the right to kill her own children (oh, don't come at me about spoilers, you read this play in high school same as the rest of us), but that the gods accept and reward her for this action. Falgione labors to find some spark of feminist understanding in the witch queen, and succeeds despite the play's limitations. Her mixed love and loathing for her children seems to filter through a haze of what is clearly a deeply unwell mental affect; the climactic pre-butchery scene with Medea and her silent children made my skin crawl like it did when I watched Essie Davis in The Babadook. (Note to professors: Medea and The Babadook would make a great double-feature discussion.) What we see, by play's end, is not necessarily a woman who committed an atrocity, or a victim who had nothing left but madness. We see a complicated, antiheroic woman who makes up her mind to do a terrible thing, does it, and regrets nothing. We aren't bothered with consequences. We aren't even bothered with social or divine justice, or even attitudes. The chorus, with their strangely flippant, blunt affect, close the show by essentially saying "this is a thing that happened," and leaving it to the audience to judge.
In closing, I will follow the production's lead and not pass too much judgment on Medea, or on the production's opinion of Medea and her deeds. You can solve that puzzle for yourselves. I will, however, leave you with two further enigmas, because I am not so much a legitimate journalist as a passionate consumer and explorer.
First, do your thoughts on Medea change when you view it in a town rocked by its own grisly family murder only a few months ago?
And second, what are we to make of Medea's character in the social unrest of 2017? Is she the dangerous immigrant who sows discord and kills citizens, that kings like Kreon would make her out to be? Or is she, an immigrant from a different religious background who commits two political assassinations and an act of terror, somehow less monstrous and more human than the naturalized citizens who pushed her to this point, then stood back and watched passively?
Talk amongst yourselves.