American Theater Company

By Jack Helbig

Most Greek tragedies leave me cold. The lack of onstage action coupled with lengthy monologues that deliver the same information over and over with slight variations makes it hard for me to empathize with the characters or get into their stories. The exception is Euripides’ Medea, a horrifying but elemental story about a woman of a certain age–no longer fertile, no longer beautiful–whose husband abandons her for a younger woman. In her rage and despair she murders her children and her husband’s future wife and father-in-law.

It’s a terrifying tale. But not as rare, for example, as the human sacrifice at the center of Iphigenia in Tauris. There have been several news stories in the past few years about women driven by madness and fear of abandonment to kill their children–most recently the case in Naperville.

But Euripides’ play is much more than a bit of yellow journalism tossed raw and squirming onto the stage. What makes this work, first performed in 431 BC, still powerful is how exquisitely he reveals all sides of Medea’s story. He does more than show us a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown: in Medea he creates both a specific and powerful character with her own history and needs and an archetype of much deeper drives and anxieties.

As a character Medea is remarkably modern. Her needs are so palpable that her psychological changes and motivations can be charted beat by beat, the way Stanislavsky suggested his acting students do a century ago. Set side by side with Hedda Gabler or Blanche DuBois, Medea would not seem out of place. In fact Euripides was the first great experimenter with naturalism, criticized in his time for the innovations he made in story and character, moving into dialogue and delving deeply into motivations. That focus on psychology makes him a bridge of sorts between us and the ancient Greeks, via the playwrights who learned from him–Menander, Terence, and Plautus–and the playwrights who learned from them, most notably Shakespeare and Wilde.

As an archetype Medea is the stuff of nightmares, at once a symbol of what men find scary about women–most notably their primal connection to birth and death–and of everything women find scary about patriarchal societies, where they must depend on feckless, faithless men. Medea is both Kali, the Hindu goddess of death who wears a necklace of skulls, and Ophelia the abandoned lover, scorned, misunderstood, and finally driven mad by men who cannot or will not listen to her.

Euripides knew what he was doing when he sat down to tell the last, sad episode in the life of that crazy couple Jason and Medea. Too bad Brian Russell wasn’t similarly inspired when he set about directing Nicholas Rudall’s eloquent brand-new translation.

Rudall’s text, commissioned for this production, admirably recasts Euripides’ play in modern American English. Though born and raised in Britain, Rudall avoids all the annoying, dusty Victorianisms of 19th-century translators and their imitators. And the cast list reads like a roll call of Chicago’s finest Equity actors: MaryAnn Thebus, Rob Riley, Yasen Peyankov, and Carmen Roman as Medea, still luminescent from her success last season as Maria Callas in Master Class. But Russell might as well have been directing a student production of a Dudley Fitts translation.

As he did earlier this season with American Theater Company’s American Buffalo and last season with The Threepenny Opera, Russell takes us only 75 percent of the way to a magnificent evening. His blocking is apt, and the actors deliver their lines efficiently, but the passion is missing. We never feel Medea’s predicament in our gut. Nor do we care when the messenger enters and recounts in gruesome detail the writhing, thrashing death of Jason’s bride-to-be (Medea gave her a robe laced with poison).

One terrible thing after another happens in this play. King Creon (ably if predictably played by Riley) banishes Medea and her children, clearly dooming them in Rudall’s translation to a life as homeless beggars, pleading for pennies by the side of the road. Jason (played as a thickheaded Soviet-style bureaucrat by Peyankov) steadfastly refuses to see that his career-advancing marriage to the king’s daughter really does endanger the lives of his children. But when Medea unsheathes her knife and runs offstage to kill her two boys, we don’t care. If I’d sat in the lobby and simply read Rudall’s translation I would have been more moved than I was seeing Russell’s staging.

But to be fair, it probably isn’t all his fault. Despite their technical skill, the actors often appear to be on automatic pilot. Some, like Riley and Thebus, seem content to deliver warmed-over versions of better performances in other dramas–it’s nice to see Riley play the puffed-up authority figure once again, but wouldn’t it have been nicer if he’d taught us something new about the fatuous king?

Moreover, Russell’s chorus of young but vocally uninteresting women seem to have been cast more for how great they’d look in publicity shots than for how much they’d add to the production. As played here, the choruses interrupt the play’s action more than they knit it together emotionally–if we were at home, we could dash to the bathroom or the fridge and not miss any of the story.

And then there’s Roman. Clearly ready for the challenge and looking every inch the weird, witchy fortysomething faded beauty who still carries herself as if she were drop-dead gorgeous, Roman nevertheless disappoints. Her Medea is always on the verge of moving us but never quite gets there. It’s as if every time Roman wanted to leap into the depths of her character, she saw Medea’s dark depths and something held her back.

That something, I think, is the overall lack of ambition in Russell’s production. This Medea will never scare you, never bring tears to your eyes, never make you feel in the pit of your stomach the full horror of life. Maybe this is what American Theater Company subscribers want. But it isn’t the Medea I love. It isn’t a Medea that could survive 25 centuries. It isn’t even a Medea that manages to keep our attention for the play’s brief 90 minutes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ruben Fuetes.