KPBS AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 24, 2000
UCSD has gone Greek. Not for fraternities, and not for long. But for two weekends only, the highly-rated Department of Theatre is presenting Euripides’ classic drama, “Medea,” in a modern, updated translation by Philip Vellacot.
This Medea is no howling harridan. She is the original ultra-radical feminist. She will not be crushed or abandoned by a husband who’s gone off to marry a younger woman, primarily for power and wealth. “Let no one think of me as humble or weak or passive,” she threatens. Medea gave up everything for the great Greek hero Jason, especially her family and homeland. She helped him obtain the Golden Fleece, she saved his life several times. And this is the thanks she gets. Never mind that she chopped up her own brother to delay the angry pursuit of her father. Never mind that, seeking revenge for the murders of Jason’s relatives, she persuaded the daughters of King Pelias to hack their father to bits. That’s all backstory.
Now, she is a woman scorned and a woman wronged, impassioned by what her husband condescendingly calls “sex jealousy.” She refuses to be cowed by her man; she will not timidly accept her fate, as Corinthian society dictates. She will exact her revenge, even if it means killing the princess, the king and her own small sons — in order to break Jason’s heart and poison his life just as he has shattered hers. But in this slick, modern version, she doesn’t do these heinous deeds in a fit of unrestrained passion. She calmly, obsessively plans and plots, luring the king and her husband into her warped, Black Widow’s web.
In many ways, this is a lucid and beautiful production. But it leaves more questions than it answers. The set design is gorgeous — bright, hyper real colors in an idyllic, sun-splashed garden. But that presents a stark cognitive mismatch with the dark, deadly themes of the play. The women are dressed in sweet sherbet pastels, shaded by summer sunhats. But down below, their feet are tied by their vermiform dresses, which cling unflatteringly and prevent them from walking with ease. Is this woman as Greek statue? Woman bound by tradition? Hard to tell; the symbolism is often opaque. And the same can be said of the magnificent lighting, which dances dramatically before us, sunrise to sunset, then turns white-hot with piercing rays and rolling thunder at the killer climax. But why?
The whole striking venture seems like high concept without sufficient or self-evident motivation. But there are some powerful performances here, particularly Alexandra Aufderheide as the nurse, Maria Dizzia as the head of the otherwise uneven chorus, mellow-voiced Ian Bedford as Jason, Jennifer Smith-DeCastroverde as the thoroughly credible messenger from the palace, and at the helm, Marsha Stephanie Blake, a quite convincing, compelling Medea.
The past few months have brought a spate of classics to San Diego… and even imperfect productions remind us why, after thousands of years, these brilliant creations remain endlessly interpretable and eternally relevant.
©2000 Patté Productions Inc.