“Passion is the root of all of our sin, and all our suffering,” Medea cries as she contemplates executing one of the most heinous crimes imaginable—infanticide. Euripides, perhaps the greatest of all the ancient Greek tragedians, explored what leads a woman to this horrific act, as well as the strength and courage it takes to carry it out, in his classic work “Medea,” which was first performed in Athens in 431 B.C.E. In a new production by the Actor’s Shakespeare Project that runs at the Multicultural Arts Center in Cambridge until March 4, director David R. Gammons strives to honor the play’s timeless themes of betrayal and revenge while updating the costumes, props and set design for modern audiences. While the show boasts a strong cast and innovative set design, Gammons’ ultimately muddies his own message with imprecise directing in some of the plays most crucial scenes.
The play is built around Medea (Jennie Israel) a princess and sorceress from Colchis—an ancient state located in the Caucasus—who in her youth ran off with Jason (Nigel Gore), a dashing Greek adventurer who famously sailed to the far reaches of the Earth to retrieve the golden fleece. After their travels, the couple settles in Corinth and raises a family. However, when Jason decides to leave Medea and marry the daughter of Corinthian King Creon (Joel Colodner), Medea flies into a rage and begins to plot the downfall of the man she once loved.
Though the acting is universally strong, Israel stands head and shoulders above the rest. All her lines are delivered with the visceral emotional intensity they deserve, yet her real strength lies in what she is able to convey wordlessly. One of the most engaging scenes in the show is when the audience first sees Medea confront the chorus of Corinthian women (McCaela Donovan, Obehi Janice, and Sarah Newhouse). While delivering her first speech, she expresses an immediately relatable sense of hopeless desperation through her facial expression and body language that reveals more about her emotional state that any soliloquy could.
The other highlight of the show was the integration of the set, sound, and lighting. The stage itself was bare, with no props and only the façade of a suburban house as a background which was divided in two by a massive fissure that expands as the show goes on and acts as a metaphor for the damage Jason’s actions do to his family. This sparse display allowed lighting designer Jeff Aldelberg to use his lights to portray Medea’s inner turmoil. During her soliloquies, red lights flood the stage from the house. This sense of desperation was heightened by unearthly noises emanating from the speakers during these scenes. It is almost as if the whole world is bearing Medea’s pain, as the power of her vengeance covers the world in blood and literally splits her house in two.
Despite all of these qualities, the show ultimately suffers from Gammons’ inconsistent directing. The production’s main scenes show some real inspiration, such as the use of modern dance techniques to physically show the dilemmas expressed during the speeches of the chorus. However, lapses in directorial judgment noticably effect how the audience watches the show and understands the characters. In several relatively minor scenes, characters deliver whole monologues with their backs to the audience. Although these directorial mistakes seem for the most part like oversights, some of the play’s most important moments are hamstrung by the directing in a much more jarring fashion. The scene in which Jason finally comes to Medea to try to explain his selfish actions is built around a mixture of fury and lust, which in itself provides an interesting characterization of Medea’s conflicted emotions. However, because of a directorial choice, the pivotal moment of the confrontation comes with Jason on his knees at the back of the stage facing the backdrop. As a result, Gore is robbed of all forms of physical expression that could communicate his inner feelings to the audience. Jason becomes two-dimensional in the one scene that provides him with his best opportunity for creating a well-rounded, sensitive whole. His characterization was sacrificed by Gammons so he could heighten the sexual tension between the two, and the character never recovers. Through no fault to the actor, the audience is left wondering why Medea ran off with Jason in the first place.
“Medea” is for the most part a wonderful play. Its central themes of love, lust, and revenge are artfully explored through stellar acting and an inspired integration of the set and the lighting. However, there is a sense that the overall production is at times held back by the directing, and “Medea,” no matter how close it gets, never quite fulfills its potential.
—Staff writer Noah Guiney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.