Comparing Small Things To Great: NOT MEDEA at CATF

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Comparing Small Things To Great: NOT MEDEA at CATF

Ben Chase and Joey Parsons

Ben Chase and Joey Parsons

Posted on July 12, 2016

The great legends and myths have their roots in common human experience. Yet it is not always obvious which experience gives rise to them. Take the myth of Medea, the sorceress who aided the hero Jason and who, when Jason cast her aside to make a politically expedient marriage, murdered their two sons. Only part of the story is commonplace: the part about Medea being cast aside. We all know (if we are not ourselves) women (and men) whose spouses have deserted them and left them heartbroken. Few of us, however, know parents, and especially mothers, who have murdered their children for that reason. Nor is it fair to trace the roots of the myth to occasional feelings of “wanting to kill” Junior; those feelings are seldom serious to begin with, and almost always transient.

I think the link to common experience in that part of the story is simply Medea’s willingness to do something extreme, outrageous, and very public to express her rage, to burn her bridges behind her, to slam the door on her way out, no matter the cost. All of us have experienced that feeling, and most of us have acted on it at one time or another. We can relate to slamming the door – but not to killing our children as a way of doing it.

But that is where the central choices of Allison Gregory’s new play Not Medea, in a rolling premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, become questionable. Gregory has tried to tell the Medea story twice simultaneously: once in a pseudo-Euripidean mode as a revenge tragedy, once as a modern disquisition on motherhood. Given that slaying one’s kids out of spite is not a common experience, do these pieces fit together? It is not an easy call.

The framing device is a bit of metatheater, where a late-arriving member of the audience barges in, sees the play has not yet started, apologizes to us theatergoers for making a disturbance, and in the process starts artlessly letting out bits and pieces of her story. We learn that one of her daughters has died and another has been taken away from her by her ex-husband and Child Protective Services. The parallel, though imperfect, is obvious, and is soon enlarged upon when the Woman, evidently not an audience member after all (Joey Parsons), breaks the fourth wall and wanders into the play of Medea we are apparently here to see, with herself as the title character (much like Babe in the Firesign Theatre classic How Can You Be In Two Places At Once becoming part of a radio commercial he had been listening to a moment before). For the rest of the play the Woman veers back and forth from her life as a modern divorcee and her life as Medea the princess from Asia Minor. In both roles she has been abandoned by a spouse named Jason (Ben Chase) and in each she finds herself in dialogue with a Chorus (Rachael Balcanoff).

Do these narratives interplay well? In part the answer rests with revelations in the modern half of the story which it might violate critical ethics to disclose. I shall say only that the stories are not entirely parallel. The modern story is emotionally credible at the cost of the very qualities I observed above make the Medea myth so universal. The modern woman has not deliberately burned any bridges. Her life, though there is a horrifying sadness at its heart, is prosaic, and lacks the grand scale of universal myth. The play, if it works at all, must do so as a comparison of small things to great.

Playwright Gregory’s primary tactic is tearing down the epic qualities of the original, in a “we’re all sisters under the skin” kind of way. Medea frequently becomes just another flawed woman falling for an even more flawed handsome guy. Here is the Jason talking (at least partly the ancient one): “I was hoping your father would just sort of give me the Golden Fleece…(cupping her face) God your eyes are an unholy gorgeous green.” The modern Woman turns to the audience and comments in response: “Who could blame anyone for falling hard on that? The guys I settled for because I was lonely or bored or hungry? Then you find one that fills you, fills the room…and your guard drops as fast as your I.Q.”

But this flip modern diction forces everything down to the lowest common denominator, i.e., prosaic chick lit talk, laced with the occasional bathetic profanity. Now, giving that kind of diction its due, it can be as much a vehicle for delivering the telling truth as anything else. And, to give Gregory her due, she uses this kind of talk for telling truths about love and parenthood.

But it is not poetry. And Gregory sometimes allows the characters to quote Euripides’ breathtaking lines, lines whose grandeur withstands the test of time even in translation, and then uses the modern talk to puncture the pretensions of the older diction. This is risky, because one’s reaction may be to think how much more one would rather be listening to the poetry of Medea right now than to the language of Not Medea.

And the title is correct: this is truly not Euripides’ tale; the most important truths being told are not Euripides’ truths. Euripides chronicles a woman who chooses to slay her children. (Whether the motive was amour fou overwhelming her parental instincts or a more creditable effort to preempt their being slain by others is a question for Euripides; in the current play, only the amour fou hypothesis is entertained). Gregory’s heroine, on the other hand, is a flawed but fundamentally protective mother, a victim of mischance.

Like everything at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, this play is beautifully acted, directed and staged. I especially like Jesse Dreikosen’s set in the midst of an intimate theater-in-the-round, a messy bed lying on a beautiful wooden floor with a still pond near it, a setting that bespeaks peace but permits conflict. And the Studio 112 space, the smallest of the three venues at the Festival, was a wise choice for this play. We want to be right on top of these tales. And for that matter, the play wants to be right on top of us: the alarming frequent interactions with the audience, like those of an insult comic, are most effective where the audience has nowhere to run.

Slapped on top of this action as we are, we witness up close a sometimes witty, sometimes horrifying, comparison of small things to great, of apples and oranges. We may or may not agree with Gregory’s choice to use these particular contrasts to share perceptions about motherhood and abandonment and loss and pain. But the two stories are rendered inextricable, for better or worse. It is what it is. On balance I enjoyed the ride, and I think the audience did too.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo (photo credit Seth Freeman)

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