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Medea, the Opera 

Heavy makeup and fancy costumes can't disguise weak performances

Wednesday, May 8 2002
The Shotgun Players' new production of Medea takes place in the huge, decaying UC Theatre, on a round stage built in front of the spot where the movie screen used to hang. An antique organ sits across from a wall festooned with two curling snakes. When the play opens, an organist performs something melodramatic while a light-shot fog floats over the audience, and Medea wails from below stage ("Let me die!"). The chorus of Corinthian women comes on to sing, dressed in pastel robes and garlands of tropical flowers, and then we see Medea, the wronged sorceress, in a vest with brown feathers and a crown of spikes, flower petals, and vines. The effect of her headdress and pallid makeup is almost Asian: She looks like a painted mask from Thailand.

What the hell's going on? The Shotgun Players are a high-energy, low-frills troupe that tends to get by on good acting, not atmospherics. But this Medea has the look of an opera. Director Russell Blackwood was inspired by an art nouveau poster of Sarah Bernhardt in a production of Médée from 1898, which explains the 19th-century touches -- the organ, the fog, and the tropical flowers. The blend of fin de siècle style with ancient Greek tragedy also works well in the UC Theatre, which was built in 1917 as not just any old vaudeville house, but as -- get this -- a Greek revival vaudeville house.

So the gods would seem to be smiling on Blackwood's high-concept production. The show landed in the UC Theatre only by accident, after permit problems developed with Shotgun's permanent space. What director wouldn't want to put his gaudy Greek tragedy into such a grand and seedy auditorium? I think it's a great idea. The trouble is that Blackwood's focus on style comes at the cost of good acting, and we get a rare thing in a Shotgun play -- loads of makeup and fancy costumes tarting up weak performances.

The exception is Beth Donohue, as Medea. She gives a stirring, relentless performance that starts with the speech about Jason, her husband, running off with a young princess, and stays vital through her final monologue about the "weakness-despising stars." (Her agonized opening lines from below stage feel cheap and melodramatic, but once Donohue faces the audience, she does well.) Medea is Euripides' portrait of a witch who comes to Corinth as Jason's trophy wife after helping him win the golden fleece. She finds herself divorced and exiled on a whim, and in a frenzy of revenge she poisons the new bride and slaughters her own sons. This material lends itself to melodrama, as John Fisher proved years ago with his camp rewrite Medea, the Musical! -- but Euripides' original script can stand only so much calculated phoniness before it falls apart.

Nina Auslander, Kenya Briggs, and Bekka Fink play the three Corinthian women who make up the chorus. They do painfully stiff work, I think on purpose, and composer Don Seaver has set most of their verse to music. The stylized acting is bad enough, but the singing is sometimes off-key and always at odds with the flow of the play. Louis Landman plays Creon, the king of Corinth (and father of Jason's new bride), in a feckless, posturing way that suggests rage but never makes clear why Creon wants Medea to leave town immediately. Jason Frazier holds his own but can't find much depth in the role of Jason; Michael Carreiro, as the noble King Ageus, acts with so much stilted, goofy uprightness that he may remind certain audience members of Captain Kangaroo.

Blackwood also imposes an Eve motif on the play: In one scene Medea writhes like a snake and eats an apple from a pewter bowl on the organ. (The snakes on Mellie Katakalos' scenery, meanwhile, live in the bare branches of a tree.) Touches like these are just fancy color. Yes, the Greeks associated Medea with snakes, and yes, the Bible traces evil to Eve and the serpent. The coincidence is visible but unobtrusive in the scenery, but is it so profound that it needs to be emphasized in a dance? Blackwood seems hopelessly in love with his own ideas.

The real tragedy is that a few scenes work beautifully well: During some of Medea's tantrums the organ plays a dire chord progression that undercuts Donohue's powerful voice with something soap opera- like and tawdry. In these scenes, Blackwood's weird mating of art nouveau with ancient Greece gives birth to a compelling, unclassical effect, and you wish the rest of his show could sustain it.


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