Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frigid NY ’10: Medea

Apart from occasional outliers, like the late Dutch director Theo Van Gogh’s five hour modern mini-series retelling, most versions of Euripides’s Medea clock in somewhere around the sixty minute mark. Such a manageable running time makes it a perfect fit for the 2010 Frigid New York Festival, consisting of thirty theatrical productions, all of which have a running time of an hour, or less. Yet, at fifty minutes, No. 11’s production of Medea (trailer here) still has all the betrayal and filicide one expects of the classic Greek tragedy.

Thanks to the barbarian princess Medea, Jason fulfilled his quest for the Golden Fleece. She returned to Corinth with the triumphant hero, expecting to become his wife. However, after bearing him two young sons, he spurns her in order to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon. That turns out to be something of a mistake in retrospect. If you don’t know where things go from here, shame on you, but at least the affordable Frigid ticket prices offer an opportunity to catch up with a classic that has been performed throughout Western Civilization for the last 2,400 years or so.

Among Greek tragedies, Medea presents particular challenges. Despite the extreme nature of her revenge, audiences are supposed to identify with Medea, the woman wronged. In this staging, what might sound like an eccentric production design strategy—using marionettes as Medea and Jason’s sons—actually helps temper the audience’s natural revulsion at her harsh actions. Indeed, No. 11’s Medea is certainly distinct among classical revivals, crediting a puppet master: Jen Neads.

It might seem odd at first, but the mix of flesh-and-blood actors, including the Chorus of Corinthian women and two living statues, and puppets works surprisingly well in this Medea (also credit Vanessa Wingerath and Mark Ferguson, who double as puppeteers and supporting players, in the roles of the nurse and tutor, respectively). In the critical lead, Julie Congress is also quite effective as Medea, largely focusing the audience on her pain rather than her rage. We do sympathize with this Medea, even though she is indeed Medea.

Director Ryan Emmons keeps the tragedy moving along briskly, which is probably a necessity, given Frigid’s tight house schedule. Though Frigid’s selection process was reportedly a bit unconventional (choosing the first fifteen applicants to submit proposals and then randomly drawing the next fifteen out of a hat), as an inventive but accessible and ultimately quite faithful adaptation of a true stage classic, Medea is a smart programming choice, nicely rounding out Frigid’s line-up. It plays again at the Kraine Theater in the East Village on February 27th, March 1st, March 4th and March 6th, as Frigid New York continues through March 7th.

(Photo credit: Jen Neads)