Director Michael Burke of paperStrangers performance group uses a cast of six and two life-sized puppet dolls in this intense, befeathered, modern-flavored restaging of Medea, the 2,400-year-old Greek drama by Euripides in which a vengeful woman horribly murders her own children. As the title character, protagonist Melissa Fenton is of course very tightly wound. This beautiful and unspeakably resourceful woman, clad in an immaculate white wedding gown covered in white feathers, has been unforgivably wounded by her husband Jason, he of Golden Fleece fame.
Played by Kellen York, Jason is a handsome cad, clad in black with his hair slicked back. He takes it as his right to cast off the barbarian Medea, who's helped make him the hero he is. In fact, he's determined to replace her by marrying the young Glauce, royal daughter of Creon, the ruler of Corinth.
We might have guessed that this wouldn't sit well with Medea. It's from this starting point that the power of Fenton’s performance takes bloom. Her face, knotted in fury or contorted in a silent scream, reveals the depth of her humiliation at the injustice that's befallen her. As she expresses her inner thoughts and then plots and executes her abhorrent revenge, it seems that we're meant to understand, if not remotely forgive, her actions.
Jason wishes there was another way to father children than with a woman. He insists that Medea was a fool not to take his offer to remain in place as his mistress. His callous observation don't make matters better. “You don’t know when you are well off,” he cruelly assesses.
More white feathers decorate an imaginatively costumed chorus of four (who greet patrons at the door with silent, mask-like grins), played by Scarlett Redmond, Amanda Meyer, Ryan Mullins and Chris Ziegler. Each has his/her own distinctive look and way of moving (taking tiny steps on demi-pointe, swiveling through hips, staggering). The group unites to intone commentary and occasionally one or the other steps into the action to play a role when the plot demands.
The production, presented in the lofty but spare Duveneck 2 space in the 1200 block of Vine Street, is faithful to the Greek-style proscenium framing of the performance space and also periodically employs an effective video backdrop, from which the children/puppet/dolls are initially suspended, and sound design by Burke, who also is credited with costume, lighting and scenic design. Stage Manager was Megyn Norbut.
The most staggering moment in the production is a true coup de théatre. In Greek drama, it wasn't thought suitable to show audiences a killing, so characters were offed behind scenes (with suitable sound effects).
But Burke has Medea eviscerate her two boys, puppets though they be, onstage in a manner that must be seen to give full effect. In the play’s concluding moments, when a devastated Jason comes upon the scene and wishes only to touch his dead sons one last time, she snatches them away and leaves him wailing to Zeus. To her Jason was a monster, after all, and she deserved better. She’s done what was necessary to crush him.
A note in the program from Burke indicates that his curiosity regarding Medea’s nature, usually caricatured as heartless and evil, drove him to create his adaptation. His hope was that this “truly modern woman” would entice the audience “under Medea’s skin, to her flesh, blood, love and fury.” It's fair to say that his intimate and powerful rendition has delivered a starkly revealing, if sometimes overwhelming, portrait of a woman driven to madness.
(Get upcoming performance dates and venue details here.)