In 'Medea,' the Original Desperate Housewife

Delia Taylor, mad as Hades in Washington Shakespeare's
Delia Taylor, mad as Hades in Washington Shakespeare's "Medea." (By Raymond Gniewek -- Washington Shakespeare Company)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

Pure and simple is often the most secure way to go with a playwright such as Euripides, and it's the path that the Washington Shakespeare Company thankfully adopts, for the most part, in its sleek and intense new staging of "Medea."

Under the lucid direction of Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter, the actors prove reliable guides through the tragedy's rapids of raw emotion. Delia Taylor, in particular, makes for a convincingly disturbed Medea; her calcified sense of grievance cakes on like so much makeup. You get the clear idea from Taylor of a woman for whom licking her wounds has not been therapeutic. The more she allows herself to think, in fact, the more wedded she becomes to a self-abnegating scheme, butchering her two young sons as revenge on her betrayer of a husband. This production is indeed the diary of a mad housewife.

A couple of the supporting actors are especially well-equipped for setting the evening's tone of mournful empathy. Richard Mancini plays Aegeus, who offers Medea sanctuary, with expansive, grandfatherly compassion, and Alexander Strain contributes an impressive turn as a watchful servant who, like us, can do nothing but bear witness to impending doom. One can take issue, however, with the casting of Jenifer Deal as Jason, the husband (of Argonaut fame) on whom Medea rains down her wrath.

This whimsical hire might have done more harm if Deal could not fulfill some measure of the physical and vocal requirements of the role. She can, and at times she successfully conveys Jason's manly obtuseness. But as the production's single bit of stunt casting, it's an experiment that doesn't quite fly, more distracting than revealing. (Given Strain's strong portrayal, his lyrical command of language, you do find yourself wondering why he is not playing Jason.) Still, this is Medea's story, not Jason's, and Deal does well enough with her formidable assignment. The production at the Clark Street Playhouse in Arlington, then, is a rewarding addition to the deep pool of Greek drama that has settled in and around town of late. The legendary women in extremis have included Vanessa Redgrave's Hecuba, Jennifer Mendenhall's Electra and Irina Tsikurishvili playing Medea in Synetic Theatre's "Jason and the Argonauts."

The Greeks loved portraying worldly women who repay in blood the men who have enslaved, humiliated or offended them. Medea's revenge is the most horrible, for while Electra annihilates her father's murderers and Hecuba slays her enemies' children, Medea executes her own. The impulse of many directors is to find modern parallels for the women's powerlessness -- a hit-or-miss proposition. "Electra" at MetroStage, for instance, archly confined Mendenhall in a yard with an electrified fence. The Royal Shakespeare Company fared better with "Hecuba" and the peerless Redgrave; this more pointedly political production, set in a tented detention camp, conjured associations with Guantanamo.

Washington Shakespeare chooses a timeless setting, and it's right for the occasion. This "Medea" speaks to the actions of a woman, not an entire society. Set designer Giorgos Tsappas places the seven actors on a circular platform painted orange-red. It's as if Hell's ablaze just under their feet. The hole in the center of the stage, filled with sand, is where we first see Medea hatching her plot and where we eventually see her children slaughtered -- a diabolical sandbox. The children, by the way, are represented by life-size dolls, handsomely constructed by Marie Schneggenburger. They're onstage throughout the show's 90 minutes, a continual reminder of how badly things will end.

The cast, too, remains in full view, at times frozen in place, at others, issuing baleful moans. The actors are also called on in the scene transitions to flap and strut like birds: one idea, alas, that goes nowhere.

Taylor, on the other hand, gains in stature as the evening unfolds. With her matted hair and tunic hanging on her like a sackcloth, she fills the bill for one with a sickness of the soul. It's a tamer Medea than the feral and startling creature Fiona Shaw brought to the Kennedy Center a few years ago, in another version of the play, but Taylor's interpretation still allows you to follow this shattered woman down a dark stairway to oblivion.

Carrasquillo and MacWhorter must have issued the dictum during rehearsal that less is more, for the cast rarely over-emotes. Only Debbie Minter Jackson, one of two actresses who make up the Chorus, displays a tendency to try to telegraph every emotional response. There's no need for blatant reminders that "Medea" is a tragedy. Kathleen Akerley, as the other half of the Chorus, maintains the proper degree of reserve, and Christopher Henley exudes a smooth hauteur as the arrogant Creon.

The play's gripping climax is freshly conceived -- unsettling and yet without a trace of blood. And a final image neatly betokens the production's effect. Her pyrrhic victory sealed, Taylor lies in the sandpit, enfolded in the bodies of the others actors. We're all, it seems, dragged down with Medea into the abyss.

Medea , by Euripides, translated by Alistair Elliot. Adapted and directed by Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter. Lighting, Ayun Fedorcha; costumes, Melanie Clark. Approximately 90 minutes. Through July 3 at Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-TIXS; .

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