(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
Some dramatic texts do not age well. They speak to a particular time and place of creation, with themes that may not reverberate with modern audiences.
Other texts, however, rightfully become classics, like the works of Shakespeare and the great Greek tragedies.
With a production of Euripides’ Medea (playing through March 6 in the Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center), Austin Shakespeare has taken on one of the greatest of these tragedies, and shows audiences why it is a play that still holds resonance today.
Medea – in this translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish – is a story of the thirst for vengeance, the war between the sexes, and the extremes of female empowerment. Director Ann Ciccolella, with dramatrug Deb Streusand, has rightly let these universal themes serve as the co-star of this production, focusing on a kind of austere simplicity that allows the characters and words to reveal themselves without any bells and whistles getting in the way.
The set, for example, designed by Tara Houston, consists primarily of a tiered marble dais and paper streamers, representing both a back wall and Greek columns. The endurance of stone and fragility of paper both serve as metaphors for the characters in this play, particularly Medea herself, and thus this simple set (accompanied by equally minimalist lighting by Patrick W. Anthony and costumes by Emily Gilardi) helps to reinforce the extreme emotions of Euripides’ text
The other highlight of this production is the remarkable cast, particularly Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Medea. From the joys of salvation to the depths of darkest hatred, Dorn fully embodies the titular character’s seesawing emotions, which ultimately lead her along an unthinkable path.
Dorn is matched by several powerful opponents along the way, most especially the Chorus Leader, played with quiet strength by Helen Merino, who provides voice for the audience’s own mixed feelings about Medea’s plots and actions.
Jason, the husband who abandoned her, serves as the primary target of Medea’s wrath, and Erik Matthew plays the part with a delightfully modern sense of sliminess and misogyny, which successfully turns to utter sorrow by the play’s end, making him a figure of pity rather than mockery. The rest of the cast, in smaller roles, provides similarly potent interpretations of these classical characters.
This production of Medea shines brightest when the actors are left to tend to their craft. A few cheesy sound cues and overtly theatrical lighting choices, as well as a sudden (if dramatic) scene change for the final moments of the play, unfortunately detract a bit from this, but on the whole do not rob the play of its raw emotional power.
Though some of the extremes of Medea may not be identifiable to audience members, its key emotions – jealousy, bitterness, rivalry – are as familiar today as they were in ancient Greece.
Ciccolella wisely has her actors deliver those lines which speak to modern sensibilities directly to the audience, particularly those that deal with the seemingly eternal conflicts between men and women. Medea is perhaps best summed up, on multiple levels, with a quote from the character, herself: “Of all Earth’s creatures who live and breathe, are we women not the wretchedest?”
“Medea” continues through March 6. thelongcenter.org