MEDEA -- At the Studio Theater, 1401 Church Street NW, through October 26. Call 265-7412; LOVERS -- At the Source, 1809 14th Street NW, through October 19. Call 462-1073.
Washington's 14th Street has long been known for theater, usually deadly serious stuff of the cops-and-robbers sort, but someday the avenue's name may conjure up the drama that happens off the sidewalk.
Two small companies a few blocks apart, the Studio Theater and the Source, are threatening to make 14th Street a nice place to visit, even after dark: The Studio's production of Euripides' "Medea" and the Source's of Brian Friel's "Lovers" are not to be fled from -- and where "Medea" is concerned, the thing to do is run straight to the Studio. It is, on the whole, a dazzling show, about as good as you can get anywhere.
To enjoy David Damrosch's adaptation, you needn't have studied Greek mythology or Aristotelian concepts like passion and moderation; you don't even have to be on good terms with the story. But don't be surprised if you want to hit the library later, to round out the experience. Euripides, of course, knew a thing or two about writing plays -- nowhere better proved than in this saga of a woman scorned who spitefully murders her children. But, some 24 centuries after Euripides' debut, it's still nice to find a company that knows a thing or two about putting plays on.
First off, this production is visually far richer than one has any right to expect from little theater, with a set by house designer Russell Metheny that could pass for monumental sculpture during off-hours, yet doesn't detract from the action. The stylized costumes and jewelry -- King Creon of Corinth, under his gray robe, wears stunning mylar front and back -- add to the sense that something heroic is afoot.
Robert Martin's music, sung by the Greek chorus and played on pipes and lyre, is used sparingly to accent the lines, but is interesting on its own.
And the performances, especially those of Mikel Lambert in the title role and Timothy Rice as her faithless husband, Jason, are obviously the work of seasoned actors. These two are broadly operatic without being hokey, grave but not pompous -- just the thing for high Greek melodrama.
As Medea, Lambert tackles a huge problem: How to play an evil schemer, who leaves a trail of murder wherever she goes and stabs her own children to punish her husband, and make her not only noble and tragic, but also sympathetic.
For Rice, the task is to play Jason the Argonnaut, nominally a great hero, as small and mean, his infidelity (judging himself quite a stud, he has thrown Medea over for the king's daughter) seeming at least as monstrous as Medea's relentless bloodlust.
Both actors succeed without apparent effort, and relate to each other not as personages from Greek drama, but as people. When Medea, feigning acquienscence to Jason's new marriage, offers sweetly to "stand and wait on your bride at the wedding bed," Jason's slightly nauseated expression gets a big laugh. So it is that 2,000-year-old plays are brought to life.
Up the street, the Source is putting on "Lovers," two playes in one called "Winners" and "Losers" Neither heroic nor tragic, they're appealing nonetheless. Brian Friel wrote these vignettes of love Irish-style in 1968, blending all the traditional allusins to heavy driking, staunch Catholicism and dark brooding into a pleasant little stew.
"Losers," the second vignette, is the winner of this pair, with David Mosedale as Andy, a successful suitor who ends up losing his wife not to another man, but to his bride's invalid mother.
There are some amusing courting scenes, with Mosedale and Judith Benedict as Hannah trying to make time on the sofa before mother, monitoring from the upstairs bedroom, rings her servant's bell. There are some funny lines. There are lots of exclamations like "Thanks be to God!"
So, if you're in the mood, why not go for brogue?