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‘Medea: The Musical’ Preview: Antiquity’s ‘Gone Girl’ Lets Ancient Female Rage Loose

Gunnhildur F. Hallgrímsdóttir ’25 in "Medea: The Musical."
Gunnhildur F. Hallgrímsdóttir ’25 in "Medea: The Musical." By Courtesy of Isabelle A. Lu
By Isabelle A. Lu, Crimson Staff Writer

With modern media’s growing offerings of female-centered retellings of classical tales, the ancient Greek myth of vengeful sorceress Medea may not seem so appealing. Medea, who takes revenge on her treacherous husband Jason, has been interpreted for centuries as a hysterical villainess. Yet, for the team behind the original production “Medea: The Musical,” Medea’s story carries the potential to be a subversive feminist tale precisely because of its female rage — still socially unsettling nearly 2000 years later — and its rare spotlight on multidimensional female power.

Presented by the Harvard Classical Club in conjunction with the Center for Hellenic Studies and Harvard’s Department of the Classics, “Medea: The Musical” takes Seneca’s circa-50 C.E., tragedy, “Medea,” and adds a new translation by Elena K. Lu ’26, as well as music by Chris B. Ruiz ’26 and Paul Palmer ’26. “Medea: The Musical” practices what it preaches: Women are central in its creative team. Besides Lu, the influence of women is also essential to the production’s characterization of Medea, from direction by Sara J. Li, a Divinity School student, to Medea’s portrayal by actress Gunnhildur F. Hallgrímsdóttir ’25.

Mythologies like Medea undeniably captivate people today. According to Li, “they remain archetypes,” containing blueprints for stories and characters across time. Under the direction of diverse new voices, however, these archetypes are reinterpreted to offer new insights. As such, Li portrays Medea in terms of her choices and guides the audience to understand those choices, even if their first instinct is to pass moral judgment.

“This is kind of a controversial take,” composer Ruiz said. “Painting Medea in a better light, I would say. Not necessarily making her a hero but at least changing up the villain that she was thought to be previously.”

Instead of a monolithic madwoman, the musical’s Medea is “deeply flawed but deeply human.” Yet, unexpectedly, Seneca’s Medea is already a complex character who feels conflicted in occupying a variety of roles, from princess to sorceress to mother. This characterization offered the perfect starting point for the team’s deep conversations about why Medea did what she did and why she is so easily “written off as crazy,” according to Li.

As the youngest person ever to serve in Iceland’s Parliament and an active feminist, Hallgrímsdóttir brought a personal expressiveness to Medea that immediately engaged her auditioners, even though she had minimal prior theater experience.

“I’m no foreigner to what it is like to be asked to calm down and shut up,” she said.

Having always been criticized as “blunt” while knowing her personality would be more widely accepted if she were male, Hallgrímsdóttir finds a cathartic message in Medea’s unsilenceable anger.

“It’s okay to be angry and to express it clearly. And if people don’t hear you, just tell them again; scream at them. I think that we’re so concerned with being nice all the time,” she said. “But, in order to let our destiny unfold — and in the case of Medea, it was quite tragic — but in the case of one’s general life, we have to allow ourselves to feel the full extent of our emotions and wherever they take us.”

Hallgrímsdóttir expects that many women at Harvard can relate to Medea’s anger. She believes that despite working tirelessly for success, they often remain unseen for their strength during adversity. Similarly, Medea’s immense power — which is essential to the success of Jason’s quest — is what repels him when she is ready to settle into family life. As strength is still delegated to men instead of women in domestic life today, “Medea” encourages its audience to value female strength and anger.

With many of Harvard’s productions being stagings of tried-and-true musicals, “Medea” stands out. It boasts a rare originality in meshing an ancient Latin script with contemporary-style music. Ruiz and Palmer, who were close friends before collaborating as composer and lyricist, wrote a first song that unexpectedly reminded them of the rap musical “Hamilton” before they were even aware that the directing team already had the vision of a “Hamilton”-style musical. In both scores, fast-paced music imbues a historical story with dynamic emotion.

“It’s a really, really interesting choice. It was kind of challenging,” Ruiz said. “But overall, it adds another element to it that makes it really relatable.”

Regardless of one’s familiarity with Greek mythology, “Medea: The Musical” prioritizes entertainment, promising heaps of betrayal, backstabbing, and shock value. Despite being small, the team invested immense heart and thought into the production. Li collaborated closely with the cast to hone their “fantastic natural instincts” into purposeful acting, while technical staff juggled various roles to solve challenges.

“The end result is this beautiful musical that I think sheds a lot of light into the psyche of a woman who so rarely gets to tell her own story,” Li said.

“Medea: The Musical” runs at the Agassiz Theater from March 21 to March 23.

—Staff writer Isabelle A. Lu can be reached at isabelle.lu@thecrimson.com.

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