Wisdom Bridge Theatre


Razor’s Edge

at Cafe Voltaire

It’s been a banner year for Greece’s most infamous mom. More or less traditional productions of Euripides’ tragedy have played the Blue Rider Theatre (from Nature of the Beast), the Leo Lerner Theatre (Black Ensemble), and Greenview Arts Center (Palookaville). Now come two very untraditional treatments of the legend, a sumptuous revival of Wisdom Bridge’s famed 1984 Kabuki makeover and a flippantly raucous version, by Razor’s Edge, of a 1984 spoof by Charles Ludlam.

Beneath the diverse trappings curdles the same ugly tale: Medea is unceremoniously dumped by Jason, the warrior lover for whom she slew her brother and betrayed her father, so he can marry the daughter of Corinth’s King Creon. An Asiatic sorceress with a shady past, poor, wronged Medea has for consolation only the sons Jason gave her, boys whose eyes, alas, remind her of Jason: worse, they continue his wretched seed. As Jason poisoned Medea’s love, poison seems a fit punishment for his princess. As for the kids, you know the rest.

Treating a classic tale in popular Kabuki style, Shozo Sato achieves the brooding stillness of a painting. His florid hybrid of East and West employs ritual dance, painted faces, mimed combat, a musical score punctuated by wooden beaters, and bright, sumptuous costumes attended to by masked koken. Behind the actors’ lines are grand gestures: Medea crossing her eyes when she reads the paper of divorce or sticking out her tongue in a moment of unbridled rage. The stylized acting makes use of frequent sighs, groans, and screams and an inflected cooing that pounces on key words. In Medea and Jason’s delicate courtship dance, their hands mirror each other’s movements and their diaphanous gowns create a swift sexual swirl. It’s both formalized ritual and spontaneous combustion.

The script, by Bill Streib and Lou Anne Wright, emphasizes the play’s peaks and ignores the valleys. Setting the action in medieval Japan (specifically the Ryukyu islands and Kyushu island), it also provides a prologue to Euripides’ plot, depicting, in a gorgeous underwater scene performed to hypnotic percussion, how Medea uses her magic to gain Jason the “Golden Dragon.” If there’s no room for nuance, well, neither Euripides nor the legend dabble in moral ambiguity. (The adaptation’s one flaw is the exchanges between Medea and Jason; they deteriorate into cute war-of-the-sexes sparring matches, with Medea remarking, “I see your new clothes and your tired old face” and, less subtly, “Being a man is a disease.” The script also includes bromides like “The stronger the love, the stronger the hate.”)

Repeating her triumph of nine years ago, Barbara Robertson offers the same demure, dangerous Medea. She deserves a patent for her power to persuade; under her character’s ceremonial gowns, pancake makeup, and exaggerated facial expressions lies a cunning, angry woman who can laugh and cry in the same breath. When, echoing a cruel remark of Jason’s, she screams, “Our marriage never existed!” we know she’s capable of anything. Whether draped in the golden sashes she weaves into a magic gown or engulfed by demons who bathe her in the gore of her dead children, this reptilian Medea is the center of her own spell; her infanticide (of smiling dolls manipulated with frightening realism by the koken) is the act of a robot woman with no power over her hate.

Henry Godinez’s Jason is every swaggering inch an unrepentant opportunist. With Medea and Jason trapped by their excesses, the nurse, Medea’s agonized confidante, is the most moving and humane character. Kathy Santen plays her with heartbreaking directness and palpable helplessness; for many of us in the audience, close identification with her character was what drew us into the heart of the story. Julie Greenberg plays the rival princess with just enough insufferable insolence.

Michael S. Philippi’s lighting bathes the pageantry in rainbows. The eye-popping props and costumes and kinetic sound design are by the artistic staff of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Medea is a role so vast you either rise to it or cut it down to size. Charles Ludlam did both in his gender-bending script for Ridiculous Theatre Company, relishing the flamboyantly outsized agonies of Euripides’ wronged sorceress while reducing them to corrosive camp. Mad for melodrama and infamous for his characterizations of Camille, Salome, and Maria Callas, Ludlam was drawn to Medea like a pyromaniac to a volcano.

Compared to his melodramatic travesties Stage Blood and The Mystery of Irma Vep, Ludlam’s Medea is strangely subdued, daring but faithful to the plot (here nicely compressed into 50 minutes) and relatively free of flippancy. Above all it’s a vehicle for whoever plays Medea.

Edwin B. Wald’s staging on Cafe Voltaire’s pint-sized cellar stage supplies all the rapid-fire overkill of trademark Ludlam. Actress Tucker Brown’s hilariously histrionic title character is a toxic cross between Sarah Bernhardt and Sandra Bernhard. Wearing a billowing black jumpsuit, a russet fright wig, and intimidating black platforms, she erupts in lethal mood changes, ranging from sickening self-pity (“It’s no fun being intelligent!”) to sickening fake humility (“I know how to be a good loser!”). The fact that Medea is played by a woman makes this Ludlam farce seem a tad less misogynistic than usual. Unfortunately, it also dries up the humor.

Though Brown steals the show, Paul Waters, a true Ludlamite in spirit if not in past experience, has fun as a hard-boiled, no-nonsense nurse (who apparently hails from Brooklyn). Medea’s kids are played by two sets of Styrofoam dolls (one before their murder and a much messier one after).

The second half of the bill is Cyclops, another classical travesty. A freely updated version of the Homer episode, it’s written by Wald and director James M. Schneider in ornately alliterative pseudo-Shakespearean prose. Set on an enchanted isle in the Persian Gulf, the silly, confused skit depicts the mythological Cyclops as a bellowing leatherman tromping around on platforms and wearing a monster dildo. His minions are homoerotic satyrs who have enslaved U.S. Navy Ensign Silenus; now they salaciously welcome the arrival of Odysseus and his horny sailors. The satyrs also provide musical entertainment–a rap song with lyrics by head satyr Tony Crane and a lip-synching version of the Village People’s “In the Navy.”

Odysseus and his seamen hope to rescue some congressmen and their wives who have been turned into sheep (not much of a transformation there). Odysseus blinds the Cyclops (after sedating him with pot) and cuts off his huge member. Then, to replace the sailors the Cyclops devoured, he inducts the satyrs into the Navy, making them promise to play straight and drop their dildos. They do it, infuriatingly without protest.

Outwardly as outrageous as any of Ludlam’s spoofs, Cyclops is actually much less ambitious or original. As satire it’s thin gruel, merely transplanting the Pentagon’s atavistic gays-in-the-military policy to Greek times. And it’s easy to read it the wrong way; the satyrs don’t regret losing their sexuality and an unenlightened Odysseus remains a straight arrow. It’s hard to find a point of view here, let alone the authors’ intent. What you do get is a frenetic frat show that seems nastier than it is.

At least Schneider’s energetic staging never drags. Dedicated hamming comes from Greg Eldridge as the stalwart Odysseus (doing an unwitting Charlton Heston imitation), Phil Gigante as the overendowed title character, and Perry DeSantis as the much-sodomized Silenus. True to the smarmiest 70s cabaret acts, Blair Bybee’s klutzy choreography hoofs up a small storm.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Russell McGonagle, Roger Lewin-Jennifer Girard Studio.