Directed by Melissa O'Brien
Through June 29 at Mobtown Theater
Though ancient Greek tragedy is the progenitor of all subsequent theater, we don't generally understand it very well. The plays were originally performed annually at a religious festival-the Great Dionysia-and the lines were sung, accompanied by music, the sound of which we can only imagine. And so it is effectively impossible to attempt a faithful performance of Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides (the only three tragedians with extant works). It is hard to know what is right, but the wrong is glaringly obvious.
So it was with both excitement and trepidation that I entered Meadow Mill for the Mobtown Players' performance of the Euripides' Medea. Just as one notices all the flaws when one sees a painting of a loved one, I feared that my love of the play might make its updated setting in 1930s Hollywood utterly unbearable.
In 1995, I spent an entire year translating Medea-the first work I'd ever read all the way through in the murderously difficult language of ancient Greek. At the time, the media happened to be obsessing over the case of the real-life Medea, South Carolina's Susan Smith, who had just murdered her two children. That year, Euripides ate my mind as surely as Zeus ate his first wife, Metis. Like the Fitzgerald-lover watching Gatsby, I feared I would be let down by this production.
There are few greater pleasures than having one's assumptions blown out of the water: Mobtown Players' Medea completely seduced me and showed me the play in a different light, like that next-door neighbor from childhood who is suddenly grown-up and hot. Director Melissa O'Brien brings to vivid life the story of Medea, the wife whom Jason (of Argonauts fame) dumps for a politically expedient marriage, causing her to murder his new bride, her father, and her own children in revenge. O'Brien's extraordinary success is a result of understanding the difference between text and context.
The visual elements of the play-the costumes and the staging-make it clear that this Medea is a movie star from the golden age of silent film, but O'Brien was smart enough not to insert any hackneyed lines into the script to convey this. She left Euripides' play intact, sewing together a script from three different translations (in a way that brings to mind the horrible classicist joke: "What did the Athenian tailor say when his customer walked in?" "Euripides?" to which the customer responds, "Eumenides?"). Unlike the versions that try to be too faithful, however, the 1930s dress helps the actors deliver the lines with the naturalism that Euripides invented. (When he died, Euripides' rival, Sophocles, famously said that he presented people as they ought to be and that Euripides presented them as they are.)
The Hollywood setting also allowed for a brilliant silent-movie set piece "Flock of Sorrows" (directed by Joshua Singer) that presents Medea's story as a film while the chorus watches along with the audience from the seats.
Still, none of this would work without an incredibly strong central character. In fact, the Hollywood angle puts even more emphasis on the lead role: We have to believe not only that she is the kind of woman who is capable of killing her children in order to hurt her husband, but also that she could be a silent-movie star. Rachel Rash killed the role as surely as Medea's poison killed the princess. Madness is difficult to play, and she brought it off with a mix of cold sociopathic calculation and hot passion. Her bony frame and angular features seem made for the days of the silent silver screen. Brian Krazewski's Jason, a movie star, perfectly brings out the blind vanity of the heroic Jason, who is concerned only about his own fame. When Rash's Medea pretends to make up with him as they are shot by paparazzi, I saw, perhaps for the first time, how this man could be so stupid as to believe that Medea had been appeased. Kraszewski's Jason is so effective because his shallowness helps us understand the deep rage of Medea, which arises, above all, from a fear of being an object of laughter or ridicule.
The chorus is one of the easiest things to botch in a tragedy, partly because we know so little about how it worked and partly because singing and dancing can come across so cornily in a modern play. But Mobtown's chorus was really spectacular, achieving the right balance between the collective consciousness of the town and the individual personalities of each of its members: Some played their role like giggling, twittering gossips, while others-notably Kristine Sloan-brought the smoldering intensity of women getting off on Medea's fall from grace, perhaps hoping that they will be the next star. Evangeline Ridgaway stole the show when she stepped out of the chorus as a chanteuse in a way that was remarkably faithful to a noirish '30s L.A. and 5th-century Athens by way of David Lynch.
We tend to think of the ancient Greeks in terms of austere and pristine white statues, but those statues were all gaudily painted when they were sculpted. It is only the winds of time, like old black-and-white film, that have made them seem pure, and the set, designed by Matt Muirhead*, does well to blend the gaudiness of the Greeks with that of Tinseltown to bring out something essential in both.
Of course, the reason a play is great is because it speaks to all times, and something about the Mobtown Players' combination of classical antiquity with classic Hollywood helps translate Euripides' script so that it can directly address the dangers of our own fame-obsessed era, where we all hope to be celebrities.
*An earlier version of this article attributed the set-design to Marshall Garrett, who designed the floorplan, rather than the set itself. City Paper regrets the error.