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Medea Bali gives a kecak kick to Euripides' shtick

Forget Todd Armstrong and Nancy Kovack, the Jason and Medea from the 1963 film Jason and the Argonauts, which featured the vainglorious Greek warrior battling dozens of skeletal combatants thanks to the elegant stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. Instead, on a bare stage at the Old Arizona Studio, Green T Productions gives us Medea Bali, Euripides' tabloid-worthy behind-the-scenes story. And a sordid tale it is: Jason, returning from his storied adventures with both the Golden Fleece and his barbarian wife Medea in tow, immediately decides to marry the daughter of Creon, the king of Corinth. Fearing Medea, whose deadly temper is legendary, Creon banishes the woman, but is thoughtlessly kind enough to grant her one day to prepare. How much harm can she do in one day, he asks rhetorically, only to discover that the answer to his question has nothing to do with rhetoric.

Green T director Kathy Welch has hit on the ingenious idea of presenting Euripides' tragedy using the techniques of kecak, a popular form of Balinese dance. At the same time, Welch has dressed her cast in black-and-white checkered chitons, the traditional garment of the ancient Greeks. The results are, initially, odd, as the costumes look very much like tablecloths stolen from some anonymous diner. And the cast could not be more varied in shape and size, some of them fitting into their tablecloths as if encased like a sausage, others appearing as though lost in a tent. But most particularly, the stylized dance movements of kecak are strongly reminiscent of those weird terpsichorean sequences from Sixties-era science-fiction films, in which green-skinned beauties writhed like human snakes as they poured alien wine down the throats of eager men in space suits. As a result, and only briefly, the stage of the Old Arizona looks as though it has been taken over by a crowd from a nearby Star Trek convention, hastily costumed to act out dance sequences from the popular show.

Mixed Medea: Medea (Virginia Haggart) executes her barbarian vengeance in Balinese getup
Mixed Medea: Medea (Virginia Haggart) executes her barbarian vengeance in Balinese getup

This feeling passes quickly, though, and the cast settles into quite a serviceable chorus, chanting the distinctive monkey shouts of kecak--a chilling sort of "chak-chak-chak-chak-chak." Their pitches rise and fall with the mood of the story as they march around in complex formations, spontaneously turning into clumps of battling soldiers or gangs of wailing Corinthians as the story requires. The effect is quite powerful, as these old Greek plays were not far removed from their roots in the ceremonies of Dionysus, in which the participants would ritually seize upon their leaders, tear them to pieces, and devour them. (Tangentially, Italian playwright Dario Fo once called for the return of this ritual, asking why we don't "make a meal of the outgoing Prime Minister.") The stylized performances do much to bring Euripides' writing to the forefront as well--there is not much thespian ornamentation that can be inserted into a monologue when it is performed in the posture of a Balinese statue, legs bent outward, arms winding through the air like asps. When Creon (Mark Miller) tells Medea (Virginia Haggart) his reasons for banishing her from Corinth, his words could not be plainer: "I am afraid of you." He has reason to be, and there is no need to add layer after layer of actorly interpolation atop this. Euripides' words are pointed and chilling, and, played out in a ritualized singsong, they become the focus of the performance.

That said, Medea Bali does feature one scene of pure movement that effectively illustrates Euripides' words. Medea's revenge comes in the form of a poisoned dress, which she offers as a gift to Jason's new wife, Creüsa, played by Katie Sopoci. Welch has already hinted at Creüsa's vanity: Through a second-story window at the back of the theater we see her preening before a mirror while a servant tends to her. Now Medea's toxic garment comes cascading out of that same window, and Creüsa, standing on the main stage, seizes it with delight. She dances in fast circles, and the dress weaves itself around her. It will continue to wrap around her body, thanks to the inventiveness of the choreography, long after the girl is dead. It even seizes upon the hands of her father as he leans down to embrace her corpse, dragging him with her into the grave. The Greeks avoided showing such scenes in their plays, tending instead to simply bring onto the stage a breathless messenger to explain what awful event had just transpired--and sure enough, as soon as poor Creon expires, onto the stage comes a panting messenger, in the form of Medea's nurse (Terri Stark), to give an account of the double murder.

Euripides was notorious for the visceral violence of his plays, and this account is a grim counterpoint to the courtly dance just witnessed. Jason (Brian Stemmler) staggers in soon afterward to confront his barbarian wife, howling in pain, hands spread out before him. "You abominable thing," he cries out, and again there is nothing to his words that is exaggerated or ornamental. Which is just as it should be.

 
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