My mother had always told us that the sorceress Medea, spurned by her husband, Jason, for a newer-model princess, had lured their children to their deaths. "Playtime is over, children," my mother would say with a harrowing degree of spooky before finishing the tale by saying Medea cooked the children and served them stewed to Jason, who thought they tasted swell until she told him what she'd done.
I always found it a thrilling story, but I can't find any of the stewing and serving in Euripides' account—or even that one hair-raising line.
Playtime is over, children.
My son and I were the only people in the audience for the Hunger Artists' production of Medea Project on Mother's Day. (Mother's Day!) There was no blood, no guts—the only bodily fluid in evidence was the undammed snot of one of the actors as he cried before us, face naked (and snotty) in grief. Most of the acting was very fine, although it tended toward yells and primal screams.
Kristina Leach teaches playwrighting at South Coast Repertory and the High School of the Performing Arts, and she can trot forth a slew of awards she's won. Her updating of the myth (and Euripides' most famous play) centers on Medea and Jason as ad execs splintering back and forth from present to flashback. It's meant, the playwright says, to explore the wooing and the love they'd had and how it could have gone—o, sad love—so badly awry. You know, aside from the easy answer, that men are just faithless, feckless pigs (Circe was right!) who'll leave you for a fresher princess any day of the freaking week.
Which would all be fine if Medea and Jason weren't . . . ad execs.
Did you ever read Tom Robbins' Half-Asleep in Frog Pajamas? No? It wasn't very good. It centered on a commodities broker named Gwen, who was Robbins' first non-hippy, non-groovy main character (and don't even get us started on how the entire damn thing was written in the second person). Basically, Gwen was smug, materialistic and completely unlikable—kind of like our Medea here (pretty Simone Nelson, who looks just like Holly Hunter), who's basically a brittle, ball-busting biz type. As we watch her and Jason (handsome Scott Manuel Johnson) at their first meeting—he approaching her dorkily, she blowing him off 'cuz she thinks she's all that!—we can't imagine they'd ever fall in love. The closest we come to witnessing the love and wooing Leach has promised is an underwear scene in which Medea lies on the cement-colored sarcophagus hung with gauzy white that serves as her bed, with Jason between her thighs. It's a happy scene; they laugh and thrash about. But happy, sexy sex-sex can be gotten anywhere, and it's not enough to make Medea kill their children—even if she doesn't cook them like I'd thought. Turns out that was Thyestes. Who knew?!
Much is made in Leach's play about Medea's betrayal of her father for Jason—Father is played in a one-note (in fact, make that half-a-note) roar as a manipulative tyrant by Damon Warren Hill, and Medea's Elektra complex is unnecessary and takes time away from the important things in the myth, like the killing (but, sadly, not cooking) of her own kids. Also sadly, Leach has written such lines as "You've completed me." Meanwhile, our Greek Chorus, played charmingly by Jack Millis, has the difficult job of bringing us, the audience, into the action; by the end of the play, we do feel as if we have a relationship with him as he guides us through the vagaries of what we'll do for "this chemical reaction" in an age of "airplanes slamming into towers." Ouch.
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The very best parts of the play come in small dialogues in which the characters revert to the formality and cadences of Euripides' smash; then, we're seeing an unbroken link of 2,500 years; then, we're reminded why this play has lasted when Susan Smith: The Musical has yet to make a splash. "He can make me disgusting," Medea says. "He can make me less."
When Medea sits before us, speaking to an interrogator or to a camera crew la Nicole Kidman in To Die For—she should be strongest (let no man say I am a weak-willed woman) and most remorseless. She should in fact be monstrous. But she cries. She repents. She is not the stuff of legend, but someone we're supposed to pity. I would pity her more if she weren't asking me to. I would pity her more if she were truly inhuman—there's nothing sadder than a sociopath, as long as you're not standing in her way. Instead, she's like a girl who cries, "I made a mistake!" when she's been caught shoplifting.
This play needs a stewpot, stat.
The Medea Project at the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; also May 24. Through May 30. $12-$15.