Black Ensemble

There’s a middle ground between sweet dreams and nightmares. It’s the sort of dream that makes you grind your teeth, where you’re caught on a treadmill, which twists and knots the raveled sleeve of care. It’s a dream without imagination, remarkable only in its monotony. It’s a dump for accumulated banalities. It’s exhausting. It’s the Black Ensemble production of Euripides’ Medea.

The motif for the production is African, but that’s all it is–a motif. The cast is black. Most of the costumes look African. And the chorus, accompanied by the relentless Jimmy Tillman on drums, dances in that Nigerian hoedown style characterized by gestures of threshing, bailing, and squatting. There are some incongruities, such as the set, which is festooned with fishnets and bamboo poles, seeming more like a Tiki bar than Africa. And a couple costumes, particularly Jason’s, look like last-minute stabs at Hopi Indian outfits. But these incongruities are obviously the product of thoughtlessness, as is the whole production, which is slapped together without any coherent idea of what special meaning the Medea story would have in an African or Afro-American context. And so Medea turns out to be as phony and unexotic as a wicker coffee table from Pier One Imports.

Jackie Taylor is given star billing as Medea, but whether that’s because of her “numerous television and film credits” or her position as artistic director of the Black Ensemble, I don’t know. I do know that she’s taken a complex, demanding role and made it as exciting as a trip to the laundromat without reading material. The unvarying note in Taylor’s performance is woe. Every speech is laden with woe. Indeed, every breathy, droning, parched syllable is wrung and hung upon the rack of woe. Of course, this kind of vocal work takes time, and Taylor gives the impression that she gets paid by the hour. After an hour and a half, when Medea finally got around to murdering her children, I entertained a final, desperate hope that one of those kids would grab the sword from her and rewrite mythology. But–abandon all hope–no deus ex machina will save you here.

The supporting cast offers no relief from the Chinese water torture of Taylor’s performance. Doris Craig (as the Nurse) specializes in wringing her hands and whining. Ed Wheeler (Jason) likes to strike manly, imperious poses, with his chin thrust improbably skyward, arms akimbo, and fists planted firmly upon his hips. Even the child actors (Michael Daniel and Franklin Reed as Medea’s sons) are ludicrous and ill at ease. They wear those half-formed expressions that signify that they know they’re in a play, but they don’t know what it’s about or what they’re doing. One of the kids even smiles–a meaningless smile like he’s having his picture taken–during the particularly woeful scenes. If Benji were in this production, he wouldn’t give a convincing performance as a dog.

The lion’s share of credit must really go to director Marlene Zuccaro. First of all, she cannot even block this play. The major characters meander around the stage with an ungrounded, restless shuffling indicative of the insecurity that comes with a lack of direction. Several times Jackie Taylor actually walks backwards, taking uncertain baby steps like a first-time public speaker without a podium for an anchor. Zuccaro does manage to move her chorus around, and more or less synchronize their dance steps. But really, the choreography is so generic, so cliche, that it’s enough to make a Black Studies Chairperson hang it all up and go for an MBA.

Zuccaro is also listed in the program as the “creator of the sound concept for this production.” I take it that means the drums–the relentless drums–which are a perfect metaphor for Zuccaro’s direction. Musically, they’re tedious. They add nothing to the production, and the chorus doesn’t dance to their rhythm anyway. The drums are used to the point of overkill, occasionally building to a crescendo then dropping to a sudden and all-too-brief silence, only to highlight a dramatic moment already beaten senseless by unrestrained histrionics. There you have it, the theatrical analogue to how good it feels when you stop beating your head against a wall. And when you leave the theater, exhausted, you hit the sidewalk with the same ungrateful relief you slam the alarm with after a long night of anxiety dreams.