Sunday, October 14, 2007

Monique Gaffney Triumphs in 6th @ Penn’s Medea


Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Monique Gaffney is an extraordinary actress. She proved it two years ago at 6th @ Penn Theatre when she played the young lady from Rwanda in the awkwardly titled but extraordinarily moving genocide play, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda. She proves it again in 6th @ Penn’s current production of Euripides’ Medea, this time as the perpetrator rather than the victim of unspeakable horrors — but equally complex, human and even sympathetic in her portrayal of the founding member of the First Wives Club, driven to a terrible revenge by her husband Jason’s leaving her for a younger, prettier and (above all) richer woman.

Just about everybody knows the story of Medea, the terrifying sequel to the heroic tale of Jason and the quest he led in the ship Argo to sail from Greece to Colchis (in modern-day Turkey) to steal the Golden Fleece. Only the ancient Greeks could have taken such a stirring piece of teenage boys’ fiction, complete with a dashing young hero, exciting supernatural menaces and the woman who falls in love with him, helps him and goes with him to Greece — a story that found its greatest dramatist in special-effects genius Ray Harryhausen’s 1958 film Jason and the Argonauts — and stuck such a relentlessly dark postlude on it: Medea, cut off from home and family, abandoned by the man she betrayed them for, killing not only Jason’s new wife but her father, King Creon, and her own (and Jason’s) two children.

And just about everybody in Euripides’ original audience 2,500 years ago knew the story, too. Until the 18th century, you didn’t go to the theatre or read a book to be surprised. You went to hear a familiar tale re-told and to absorb the current author’s “spin” on it, what he would choose to emphasize, what attitude he would take towards the familiar characters and situations. Of the great Greek playwrights, Euripides’ reputation in his own time was as the edgiest, the one most likely to jolt you with a fresh “take” on a story you thought you knew. If you wanted to see the ancient myths dramatized straight-up, you went to Sophocles. If you wanted to see them twisted and turned round, Euripides was your man. Just as he turned the Trojan War’s “bad guys,” from the Greek point of view, into sympathetic figures in his play The Trojan Women, in Medea he went out of his way to make her actions seem not only understandable but inevitable.

It’s hard to think of another play that went so far to evoke real pathos in his characterization of a murderer until William Shakespeare wrote Macbeth 2,000 years later — and it’s hardly even been attempted since. Medea lives as both play and metaphor precisely because it seems so timely; it’ll be out of date when men stop having mid-life crises and dumping their wives, and the dumped women stop feeling bitterness and hate towards the men who once loved them. Its continuing relevance came home in 1994 when Susan Smith drowned her own two children to ingratiate herself with a new boyfriend who was also her boss (and Republican politicians blamed her actions on 1960’s liberalism) while Diana Rigg was starring on Broadway in a production of Medea, which proved that infanticide was a problem that well pre-dated the existence of the Democratic party.

6th @ Penn has given Medea an intensely stylized production, so strikingly reminiscent of Sledgehammer Theatre’s style it’s not at all surprising that director/designer Ruff Yeager has worked there — albeit in one of Sledgehammer’s more “normal,” though still edgy, productions, his own play Bronze. The translation by Dr. Marianne McDonald (who dramatized her own life at 6th @ Penn in the unforgettable The Last Class) falls easily off the tongues of the actors without being overly colloquial. Yeager’s set design is all white: a back wall consisting of five white doors through which the characters, other than Medea, enter and exit; a surface on which are projected deliberately sentimental pictures of children and words representing Medea’s innermost thoughts; and a series of tables with large glass bowls on and under them, into and out of which Medea pours various substances representing the rituals of her homeland.

One of the key aspects of Medea is the central character’s rootlessness. In a country built by people who were relocating for economic opportunity or to flee religious persecution, we take uprooting yourself from your home and moving somewhere else so routinely it’s hard for us to relate to the ancient Greeks’ obsession with home, their sense that exile was literally a fate worse than death (indeed, given the choice of exile or death, Socrates chose death). It’s one of the reasons why Medea, already “homeless” in this broader sense because she betrayed her family and killed her brother Absyrtus to help Jason, and alienated from the natives of his town of Corinth because of her “outsider” status, not only loses her husband but what little identity she had as a Corinthian. Ordered into exile, driven mad by multiple rejections, it’s no wonder she strikes back in the ways she does.

Yeager heightens Medea’s alienation by casting African-American Gaffney in the role and making all the other characters white. This isn’t your usual “non-traditional” or “trans-racial” casting, in which we see Black actors playing the parents of white ones (or vice versa) and we’re supposed to be P.C. enough to suspend disbelief and accept it — not from a director who carefully cast his own play Bronze to bring out the racial politics he’d written into his script. Medea is a Black woman in an all-white world — not only the other people but her entire surroundings are white — and Yeager’s casting strategy brings out her “outside” position better than the dialogue, even from a master like Euripides, ever could.

The other standout in the cast is John DeCarlo as Jason: stupid, befuddled, almost Bush-like in his utter non-relationship to reality, especially when he tries to explain to Medea how his dumping her for the king’s daughter actually strengthened her position in the Corinthian court. One can imagine DeCarlo as the heroic Jason of the Golden Fleece tale gone to seed and settled into a swaggering middle-age that still has something of the eternal adolescent about it. Allison Finn as the Chorus — in Greek drama, a single person who narrated the story and clarified the moral lesson the playwright hoped we would draw from it — is also touching. She starts her role from a seat in the second row (explaining a “Reserved” sign that’s enigmatic until we hear her speak) and, in McDonald’s adaptation, gets to interact with the characters and try to talk Medea out of murdering her children. Finn projects a voice of reason in a play that badly needs one.

Steven Jensen’s Creon works as an implacable figure of authority; he can’t do much more with the role, but probably nobody else could have either. Darlene Cleary as the children’s nurse is properly venerable, wise and impotent. John Martin plays Aegeus, who offers to take Medea in if she can get to his home town of Athens, a bit too queeny to be believable as a righteous monarch and family man. Joseph Dionisio is listed in the cast as “Tutor” and “Messenger” but is costumed so boyishly at first it seemed as if he were collectively representing Medea’s two children.

But it’s Gaffney’s performance that dominates. There’s a bit of a miscalculation early on in which she’s describing how she plans to kill Jason’s relatives and she starts sounding like the Wicked Witch of the West pondering how she’s going to dispatch Dorothy. But otherwise her performance is searing and brilliant, keeping the fires banked, the volcano smoldering, through much of the first half of the play. Gaffney is a good enough actress to pass up the temptation to overact the early scenes so that, when the time comes for her to blow, the explosion is a galvanic surprise even though we know the story and are waiting for it to come. When she contemplates the murder of her children, she dances and stomps animalistically around the stage as if reverting down the evolutionary ladder; when she finally confronts Jason after the dirty deeds, she’s calm and implacable, the fury spent but annealed into a hard, bitter kernel of contempt.

Yeager’s production is full of projections, dire bits of music (much of it sounding like Balinese gamelans, which works surprisingly well), distorted voices at the beginning and the end (we hear Medea this way through a recording well before Gaffney speaks her first lines “live”), eerie lighting effects (lighting director Mitchell Sinkovski smoothly integrates his work into Yeager’s non-realistic conception) and stylized movements. There are scenes in which several actors talk at once, sometimes contrapuntally and sometimes in unison, reminding us of how many composers have written operas or ballets about Medea (among them Charpentier, Cherubini, Mayr, Barber, Chávez and Theodorakis).

Medea at 6th @ Penn is as good as local theatre ever gets, if not better. It’s a stylized production, but the stylization serves the story instead of taking it over or getting in the way. It showcases a brilliant performer in the title role but still manages to work as a unified production instead of just a star turn. The combination of Gaffney’s intensity, Yeager’s thoughtful direction and McDonald’s deep understanding of Greek drama and how to bring it to life for a modern audience make this Medea a production to be treasured — and not to be missed.

Medea plays through Sunday, November 11 at 6th @ Penn Theatre, 3704 Sixth Avenue near Pennsylvania in Hillcrest, through June 17 and 18, respectively. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thurs., Fri. & Sat. and 2 p.m. Sun. For tickets and other information, visit, e-mail, or phone (619) 688-9210.