In 431 B.C.E., the Greek playwright Euripides took home last place at the Dionysia festival in Athens for his play “Medea.” Despite the original critical panning, “Medea” has gone on to become one of Euripides’ best known plays. Harvard BlackC.A.S.T.’s revival of the millenia-old work, staged in the Cabot House Theater through Saturday, November 3, attempted to channel the original with flowing tunics and a set flanked by columns. Despite these efforts, however, the production failed to channel the emotional power that has allowed “Medea” to endure. The play’s grand speeches and demand for intense performances proved too much of a burden for the largely weak cast, resulting in a play that drowned in its historicism, unable to gain much emotional purchase in the present day.
The power of “Medea” comes in large part from its notoriously haunting story. After falling for Jason (Tshepo Malete ‘14), the famed leader of the Argonauts,), the enchantress Medea (Jennifer L. Berrian ‘16) journeys with him from her home in Colchis back to Greece as his wife. Their life together is happy until Creon, the King of Corinth (Matthew S. Williams ‘14), offers Jason his daughter’s hand in marriage, which he accepts. Furious at her husband for abandoning her, Medea devises a twisted revenge: to kill the princess and her father and murder her own two sons. Typical of classical Greek tragedy, many of the lines are written as long, formal monologues, and it takes skill on an actor’s part to breath life into them.
Unfortunately for this production, it was a skill that many of the actors lacked. Malete’s Jason, for example, had none of the swagger or confidence of a conquering hero, and his emotional range was painfully limited. Malete did succeed in some parts—such as when his anger finally boiled over at Medea’s harsh castigation—but most of his performance lacked this depth of feeling. Even at the death of Jason’s bride-to-be, the most he could muster was vague annoyance. And the chorus of Corinthian women (Jenifer A. Brown ‘15 and Aly G. Martinez ‘13) was not much better. In Greek drama the chorus, as a representation of the people of the city, breaks up the action of the play with philosophical observations and moral judgements. However, in this production, the poetry and tragic beauty of the original script was marred by unnatural pauses and emphases. Martinez and Brown recited their lines without conveying to the audience the weight of their words: when Medea coldly plots the death of Jason’s new wife, they respond with only the feeblest objections. The directing didn’t help their case, either: they roamed through the audience aimlessly, and they delivered the final lines of the play while walking down the central aisle and chanting in unison dully like the Grady twins from “The Shining.” Euripides is known for his nuanced psychological understanding of his characters, but you wouldn’t know it from these performances.
The costuming only accentuated the cast’s weaknesses. While some of the tunics (notably those of the chorus) looked sleek and glamorous, Berrian’s was a mess—the hem was frayed in some places and puckered in others, and she was in danger of tripping over it several times. While this could be interpreted as a directorial decision that underscored Medea’s outsider status in the city of Corinth, it seriously undercut her dignified air.
The play’s acting was by no means universally bad. Berrian did her best to keep the show going when it stumbled, and she deftly channeled the various facets of Medea’s persona. It would be easy to characterize Medea simply as evil—and indeed, Berrian’s wicked facial expressions when she was hatching her plans were excellent—but the actress gave equal weight to Medea’s desperation and grief, rounding out a character that, if flat, would have rendered the play emotionally meaningless. Skillfully evoking Medea’s sense of being trapped with nowhere to flee, Berrian allowed the audience to empathize with her even when she was contemplating the unthinkable. Two other strong performances were given by the Nurse (Misha C. Garrison-Desany ‘16), whose pathos-filled narration of the backstory started the play off strongly, and the Messenger (Rachel V. Byrd ‘13), who narrated the death of Creon’s daughter, giving the tragic scene the proper emotional weight it deserved.
By far the most problematic aspect of the production was that it didn’t have confidence in itself. At several points in the play, for example, Malete’s inability to carry his lines off with the necessary amount of conviction made them sound inadvertently humorous, and more than once, Berrian herself started laughing involuntarily when acting opposite him. If even the actors couldn’t believe each other, how was the audience supposed to?