[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.]
Steven Epp has not directed a play in 17 years or thereabouts, and from the sound of things had to be pressed into service to do so for the current Theatre de la Jeune Lune production, Medea. Presumably this was done the same way sailors used to be pressed into service--with a bottle of rum and a blow to the back of the head--but however it was achieved, it's worked out very nicely. Epp has brought to this story exactly the sort of directorial vision you would want in retelling this tragedy of a woman who butchers her husband's new bride, the father of the bride, and her own two children. This Medea is brutal, unsparing, and unexpectedly beautiful, exactly like the title character.
This is the season of Medea, by the way, just as last season was the season of Hamlet; already the Twin Cities have seen three productions of Euripides' tragedy, including this one. And it's a good season for Medea, with the weather itself seeming to reflect her actions, having soothed us for the past few months with surprising gentleness only to try to murder us now. However much the betrayed barbarian Medea might weep and moan in this production (and, as played by Barbra Berlovitz, looking haggard and dangerous beneath a long red veil, Medea weeps and moans to beat the band) there is an essential coldness to her, a quality of calculating that is quite terrifying to behold.
For those who know Euripides' play, this menace is a little unexpected. The Greek wrote his play in a manner that the Greeks seemed inordinately fond of, as a sort of extended act of rhetoric. Most translations of the text are rather dry as a result, and lack virtually all stage directions. It is possible to imagine Medea stepping forward onto the stage in oversized glasses and brown Hush Puppies, holding up a collection of 8 x 10 note cards, and declaring "Resolved: I have been betrayed by my husband, and so the best course of action would be to murder a few people." Upon which Medea's husband Jason, hero of the Argonautica, as well as various citizens of Greece, step forward in their own Hush Puppies with their own note cards to present an opposing viewpoint. They debate for a while, and, with the debate resolved in Medea's favor, Greeks start to die.
It is not like this at the Jeune Lune. When Creon, king of Corinth (played by Allen Hamilton), arrives early on to tell Medea that she has been banished, he makes his case rather more forcefully. He charges into Medea's house and sets it on fire. Medea herself does not carefully articulate her grievances, which are considerable. She screams them, and often must be held back by the remainder of the cast as discordant musical passages from Korngold, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev pour out of a piano behind her. Increasingly it seems likely that the Jeune Lune production will turn, midway, into the Roman playwright Seneca's version of the same story, and Medea will scamper to the roof of the two-story set and fling her children down upon us.
Aside from directing this production, Epp newly adapted it, with Berlovitz, and they have made some significant changes that are worth noting. They have aged one of Medea's children and given him dialogue, and then cast Nathan Keepers in his role and made him hideously aware of his own coming fate. "Let me live a gentle life," he calls out from the doorway of his ruined home, and sits on the filthy grounds before them (the set here is piled high with actual dirt), forcing clumps of mud into his ears to block out the threats and lamentations of his mother. The tragedy very nearly seems to be his. Indeed, at the play's end his burnt children's toys, rescued from the house, will remain behind as reminders of the terrible events: A toy ship floating in a pool of bloody water, and a wooden cart turned suddenly into an ekkyklema, the Greek device for revealing the bodies of the dead.
Let me briefly mention that a similar spirit of classicism, or, more properly, neo-classicism, has infected the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center. The Gilbert and Sullivan Very Light Opera Company is presenting its annual very light opera, and in this instance the piece in question is Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride. This operetta spends an inordinate amount of time mocking Victorian aesthetes, following them around as they prance across the stage with lilies in their hands, pausing only long enough to pose like antique statues, sigh weightily, recite a few snippets of wretched poetry, and address comments to the gods of the classical world. "Oh Chronos," one calls out, "this is really too much!" These aesthetes, played by Jim Ahrens and Donald Barbee, are so assured, so ridiculous, and so funny in their adoration of antiquity that it is impossible to imagine the Greeks ever produced anything so gauche as a tragedy.
Correction published March 6, 2002:
Owing to an editing error, the Jeune Lune's Barbra Berlovitz was misidentified in the original version of this review. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the error.