Not Greek to Me

Like most productions of Greek drama today, Stageworks' Medea overly contemporized

Anyone who's ever seen a Greek tragedy performed in something like ancient style can tell you how uncanny and moving the experience is. Characters all in masks, sudden outbreaks of codified dance and eerie song, a chorus of perhaps 12 or 15 persons all speaking in unison at moments of high tension — the effect is spooky, larger than life, more than a little frightening. It's not at all surprising that classical Greek tragedies were performed at religious festivals. Watching these tales of murder and mayhem in their original style, one is repeatedly reminded of the ancient Greek view of a cosmos filled with capricious, envious gods, and with pathetic humans subject to never-ending cycles of vengeance and hard justice. The world of ancient Greek drama is a horrible one, where no crime is too vicious to be committed, no soul too innocent to escape a terrible fate. We watch the highly stylized narrative unfold, and we feel, as Aristotle suggested, pity for the victims and terror for our own lives. And yes, we leave the theater feeling something like a "cleansing," the famous catharsis. Not for us this world of violence and cruel destiny: We're decent people, moderate, innocuous. Or we're sure going to try to be.

Of course, most contemporary directors of the Greek classics don't try to reproduce the ancient style in their productions. Most directors, like Anna Brennen of Tampa's Stageworks, remove the masks, drop the episodes of dance and song, and give us Greek tragedy as if it were written for the modern stage — for emotionally "realistic" acting and an audience more interested in psychology than in metaphysics.

Sometimes this is effective — I can think of at least one Oedipus Rex that would have been marred by any attempt to utilize ancient production methods — but it can be dangerous, too. If a tragedy is only about psychological reality, if it loses its otherness, its conscious artifice, it can seem like flawed naturalism: overwritten, long-winded, lacking complexity of character and breadth of action. Finally, a strictly modern interpretation can come across as boring; we're conscious of being in the presence of a "great" play, but deep down we don't find it very interesting or even pertinent. Oh well, we're probably doing something creditable by sitting still and watching. But, if we're absolutely honest, the play doesn't speak to us.

And that, I'm afraid, is the case with Medea, the tragedy by Euripides currently showing at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in a Stageworks production. Director Brennen has staged the play for maximum psychology and minimum Greek-ness, and the result is that even at its best it feels tedious, in need of cutting, a couple of subplots and more complicated characters. The irony is, the acting is often impressive: Dawn Truax as Medea is a convincingly distraught abandoned wife; Rosemary Orlando as the Nurse is manifestly tired and bitter; the five women of the chorus seem to believe every word they say. And still we feel as if everything's happening in slow motion, that events are taking too long to unfold.

The one exception is Eric Davis' portrayal of Jason, Medea's faithless husband. Davis avoids (until the play's last moments, at least) anything like emotional realism and gives us a Jason who is almost a living mask: impassive, imperious, more emblematic than "real." And it's the best performance in the play. Watching Davis as Jason, we feel ourselves in the presence of something foreign to mere flesh and blood, something higher, on a loftier plane of being.

No other actor gives us this impression — not Petrus Antonius as a bad-tempered King Kreon, not Bill Carey as an overly credulous King Aigeus, and not Richard Coppinger as a tutor who might have stepped out of an O'Neill comedy. All these performers, like Truax and Orlando, act credibly; but only Davis reaches us on that subliminal level where we know what we most fear: that the universe is alien, that it disdains us, that it could destroy us. Davis/Jason loses this hold on us in the play's last minutes, when, having discovered the murder of his children, he reacts with realistic animal agony. But this outburst of the conventional can't make us forget what we've witnessed: a performance worthy of that exalted concept, the tragic. Once again, Davis has shown that he's one of this area's most gifted actors.

Of course, Jason isn't at the center of the play. That role belongs to Medea, who as the lights first come up, has learned that her husband is planning to discard her in favor of a more royal bride, Glauke, daughter of King Kreon. What's worse, Kreon hopes to avoid Medea's revenge by banishing her and her two sons from the home they've made in Corinth. Medea begs Kreon to give her one more day to get her affairs together; and Kreon, not realizing just how dangerous Medea is, grants her this reprieve. Now Medea sets about exacting her revenge. She persuades King Aigeus of Athens to guarantee her refuge in his city, and then convinces Jason that her anger has abated. In an apparent spirit of conciliation, she sends gifts to Princess Glauke; but the gifts are poisoned and kill both daughter and father. Finally, Medea carries out the most horrible of her revenges: she robs Jason of his future by murdering their two children. At the end of the play, she escapes from Corinth leaving four people dead and Jason in despair.

The Stageworks version of Medea takes place on a fine set by R. T. Williams: We see the front of a gray palace, supported by classical columns, and a couple of abstract elements resembling rock formations. Robin New's attractive costumes include ancient-seeming tunics and gowns, and Eric Davis' sound design undergirds certain scenes with evocative, portentous music. In fact, on the level of design, this may be Stageworks' best production in years. And I should add that the play's translation, by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish, is easy to understand and avoids nearly all archaisms.

But Greek tragedy isn't contemporary naturalism. Brennen stages Medea as if it were written by Tennessee Williams, and as a result we feel impatient, wondering why it moves so slow, takes so long.

It's admirable of Stageworks to bring this classic back to life.

But still to be found is the idiom that can make it matter.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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