The sheer passion in the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s red-hot production of “Seneca’s Medea,” translated by the Harvard Classics Club, could have set ablaze the ghostly waters of the Adams Pool Theater. Running from Nov. 20 to Nov. 23, perhaps the show’s only foible was that it did not provide ice-cold lemonade (or should I say ambrosia) along with the cast’s coruscating performance. The actors’ ability to convey the nuances of their characters’ emotions through their mastery of tone and gesture as well as and the production’s remarkable use of the theater’s vestigial pool features made for a dramatic spectacle.
The production, directed by Veronica S. Wickline ’16, is based on a play written by Roman dramatist Seneca and set ten years after Medea, a barbarian sorceress, helped Jason conquer the various adversaries that separated him from the coveted golden fleece. Despite their happy marriage and two sons, Jason’s need for political protection from Creon, the king of Corinth, pushes him to marry Creon’s daughter, Creusa. The play begins in medias res with Medea plotting her revenge: the murder of the bride and of the sons she had with Jason.
The show’s greatest treasure was Juliette Cremel ’17, who plays Medea. Cremel’s meticulously expressive movement and nuanced communication of her anger enabled her to dive into Medea’s skin from the second she made her first appearance. This feat is especially laudable since her first lines are a lengthy monologue filled with complex invocations of several deities. Her initial movements already invoked the dark ambience of the production: her walk to the spotlight was slow, and the way she dragged her feet embodied the weight of the anguish Medea carried. Once in the spotlight, she emitted a low moan, sinking down to her knees. By the time she began her opening soliloquy, her mere presence on the stage had already communicated the pathos of the play. Cremel conveyed her despair in the moments between her lines. For instance, after her rapturous invocation, “ye goddesses who avenge crime…with your bloody hands, be present now,” she paused with a fierce gaze. Often she yelled her lines, allowing her to express a hot fury, and in other moments she hissed with a chilling venom. Such nuance in Cremel’s performance infused the mythical Medea with a realism that transformed the performance into a universal portrayal of the human condition, one that was easily relatable in its timelessness and thereby all the more moving. Cremel’s emotional tour de force transformed Medea into the Greek chorus of her own tragedy, justifying Wickline’s decision to exclude the group of Corinthian women used to set the tone in Seneca’s original version.
Wickline’s decision to let Cremel’s native French origin shine in the performance further bolstered the successful development of Medea’s character . Medea’s rejection of her entire barbarian heritage to join Jason leaves her a foreigner to her own kingdom, an isolation that magnifies her despair as Jason prepares to marry Creusa. Cremel’s French lilt was a subtle reminder of Medea’s non-Greek heritage. In addition, Cremel used French in her murderous incantations and sang the popular lullaby “Doucement s’en va le jour” instead of the play’s original Latin odette as she gave her children a last goodbye. The substitution of French for Latin in Seneca’s Greek score combined with other modern elements of the production—such as the syncopated rock music played during the transitions and Medea’s cigarettes—to give the ancient tragedy an engaging 21st century flavor.
Julie Thimmig’s performance as Medea’s nurse was equally fierce. Thimmig complemented Cremel’s more violent outbursts with a steady but powerful voice that conveyed her character’s wisdom. Thimmig’s successful conveyance of the nurse’s stability in the face of Medea’s folly was best represented in her fearful monologue about Medea’s imminent poisoning of the bride. Medea’s silent stirring of the fateful concoction in the background was juxtaposed with Thimmig’s worry-ridden proclamation of her queen’s criminal plots. The soliloquy was expressed in a well-enunciated, clear tone that emphasized the nurse’s rational fear against Medea’s festering, suppressed vengefulness.
The production’s thoughtful and innovative use of the set accentuated the subtlety of the actors’ performances. Most notable was the use of the highly reflective windows at either side of the pool basin. Rather than always addressing the audience straight on, the characters sometimes turned to them as they spoke their lines, their faces visible to the audience in these mirrors. This indirect way of performing the lines to the audience was ideal for conveying the intensely personal nature of Medea’s internal dialogues: one could actually imagine that Cremel was addressing her own conscience as she exclaimed, “Soul! Why do you hesitate?”At the same time, the spectators were not excluded in this interchange as the actor’s reflection always made eye contact. Such effective use of the set helped make Medea’s conflicted internal state all the more compelling.
The HRDC’s production was an admirable tribute to Seneca’s play as well as an innovative modern take on the myth of Medea. The impeccable performance of the actors communicated a firestorm of passion that was expertly complemented by whimsical anachronistic touches and clever use of the theater’s space.
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