YOU WOULD HAVE TO DEDICATE YOURSELF TO WATCHING THE LIFETIME MOVIE Channel all day every day to find a more disturbing vision of a depressed and maniacal woman than is presented in Medea.
This yarn is now being presented as the inaugural production of the new Mamai Theatre, in residence at Ensemble Theatre. First penned by Euripides eons ago, it takes no prisoners as it tells the tale of a scorned wife who burns with such searing rage at her unfaithful husband that she commits multiple murders, including the filicide of her two young children.
In this translation by Brendan Kennelly, the story has been moved into modern-day suburbia, complete with a grassy stage and a gaggle of contemporary observers. And while the strong cast scores many compelling moments, the overall impact of the play is muted by repetition in the script and a couple of curious directorial decisions.
As in the original, the story begins as Medea is in full grief mode, prostrate on the ground behind her white picket fence, after her hubby Jason has left her to marry the daughter of King Creon.
Medea is percolating with hate since she had recently led the lunk in copping the Golden Fleece and saving him from a nasty dragon. And like so many women who have helped their spouses through law school just to see the cads dump them once their careers take off, Medea is filled with a rage "wilder, purer and fiercer" than any one can imagine.
As the sorceress Medea plots her revenge, her actions are reflected in the words of those who surround her—not the usual Greek chorus, but a booze-swilling neighbor lady (Jean Cummins), a barista seeking the haven of moderation (Sarah Doody), a prudent lawyer (Anne McEvoy) and a vain TV newswoman (Natalie Green) who is frequently shoving a microphone in front of the main characters' faces.
Jason is played by Jason Kaufman with the arrogance of a rational man facing blazing irrationality, sneering at Medea's fulminations. After all, he is just changing wives for political and financial expediency.
In the title role, Tracee Patterson is a seething monument of female frustration and anger. Her Medea has some of the mystical powers of Euripedes' witch, including the ability to poison a gown and a headdress that sicken her rival and then make her burst into flames.
But when it comes to killing her own children, to deprive Jason of the family he wants, she is left to paw through garden tools until she finds a battle axe in the blood-red wheelbarrow—which is aptly and wittily emblazoned with the True Temper logo.
Director Bernadette Clemens offers many riveting staging ideas, including an impromptu waterfall on the lawyer's desk. But once the final heinous act is committed, things go slightly awry.
When a messenger comes to announce the death of Jason's new paramour and her father, Patterson is forced to react sitting on her backside and facing upstage. It's the penultimate moment of Medea's triumph, and we can't see it?
And after Medea dispatches the little girls, providing the familiar justification of protecting them with "the safety of the grave," she drags them onstage in blood-drenched sleeping bags. This adds a bit of slasher-movie inelegance to the event.
In a play beset by precious few moments of levity, Robert Hawkes as Creon generates a few titters. Some are based on his deadpan delivery, others at his helmeted and booted CHiPs get-up. And Mary Jane Nottage as the Nurse handles some heavy expository lifting in the introduction with a deft mix of dread and affection.
Irish poet Kennelly crafts countless wonderful passages, such as when Medea confronts those who advise against retribution: "Your eyes are full of judgment, but are devoid of justice." But he winds these complex and lovely sentences around and around the same simple plot point, nearly strangling it to death in a verbose embrace.
Still, this is tragedy served raw, finally asking whether this awful bloodbath is actually Medea's glory. Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves.