"What's it about?" asked a man at the box office, looking at the poster advertising "Medea." "It's a Greek tragedy about a woman scorned," said the ticket-seller with perfect accuracy if not much detail. The man thought for a minute and walked away toward the American Film Institute. He was probably wrong -- Greek tragedy is not everybody's cup of retsina, but "Medea" is one of the few exceptions to the rule that this art is box-office poison. The reasons were set down succinctly by the 19th-century German critic Schlegel, who thought he was condemning the author, Euripides:

"Of few authors can so much good and evil be predicated with equal truth. He was a man of infinite talent, skilled in the most varied intellectual arts; but although abounding in brilliant and amiable qualities, he wanted the sublime earnestness and artistic skill which we admire in Aeschylus and Sophocles. He aspires only to please, no matter by what means. For this reason, he is so frequently unequal to himself, producing at times passages of exquisite beauty and frequently sinking into positive vulgarity." In other words, Aeschylus may have invented Greek tragedy, but Euripides invented show-biz.

Perhaps that explains why "Medea" won only third prize in the Athenian dramatic festival of 431 B.C., and also why 18 of Euripides' plays have been preserved, as compared to only seven apiece by his more sublime colleagues and rivals. Euripides is the Puccini of Greek tragedy. Compared to the vast mythic structures of Aeschylus, with their brooding concern for guilt, justice and the inexorable workings of fate; compared to the anguished, existential probings of Sophocles, much of his work ventures into sentiment, human interest and even pop psychology and sociology. It would be too much to say that he wrote soap opera -- though, like Puccini, he did have a taste for suffering heroines. But if it's not exactly soapy, there is something distinctly operatic about his writing.

"Medea" is both his "Madame Butterfly" and his "Tosca." It is, in fact, a "Butterfly" with a "Tosca" clone as heroine, the story of an Eastern woman wooed and married by a seafaring man from the West who ultimately abandons her for a more socially advantageous marriage. But this Butterfly does not quietly commit suicide; she exacts a revenge enormously more devastating than Tosca's and coldly premeditated. The title role demands an actress of awesome power -- a Lady Macbeth who is also one of the play's witches (for Medea is a sorceress) and has, as well, a bit of Ophelia's vulnerability, puzzlement at the strange ways of the male, and madness. It's almost a one- woman show: Medea carries the whole play on her back. In this production, Zoe Caldwell carries it, on the whole, spectacularly -- aided by Dame Judith Anderson, who scored a blockbuster hit in the same adaptation by Robinson Jeffers 35 years ago. The Nurse, Anderson's role this time, is somewhat padded for the new production by giving it one of the play's most striking passages -- a long monologue, usually spoken by a messenger, that describes the death by magic fire of two of Medea's victims.

I was very young when I saw Anderson's "Medea" 35 years ago, and perhaps less critical than I am today, but my memory, for what it may be worth, is that her performance had even more impact than Caldwell's, though it was relatively understated. At any rate, Caldwell goes all out, giving a virtuoso performance that emphasizes Medea's madness and her status as an exotic creature in a hostile society. She fingers the folds of her robe almost constantly an with mixed feelings the thought that her revenge can be complete only if she kills her children. She adopts a cold logic in the recurring question-and- answer scenes where she probes the exact dimensions of her situation and a wild, over-the-brink style, writhing in ecstasy, as she listens to Anderson's chilling story of death by fire. In its enormous dimensions, its variety of tone and its occasional lapses into vulgarity, her performance is something like an organ recital by Virgil Fox.

In its casting, the production seems to follow a disturbing trend in Kennedy Center productions, which was quite perceptible in "The Physicists" though less so in "The Late Christopher Bean": put some blockbuster names at the top of the poster and don't worry too much about how you fill the minor roles. Below Caldwell and Anderson, the performances are spotty though generally adequate. Peter Brandon performs with special distinction in the role of Aegeus, King of Athens, and the scene in which Medea slowly traps him into offering her refuge from her enemies is one of the evening's more subtle delights. Special mention should also be given to Rosemary Murphy, who plays the leader of the chorus (recast by Jeffers into three "women of Corinth" to make the play more viable on Broadway), and Mitchell Ryan, who does well, on the whole, with the ungrateful role of Jason.

All in all, this "Medea" is a superior evening's entertainment, and parts of it will predictably stick in the memory for a long time. But in many ways I was more impressed by last year's production at the Studio -- a small, low-budget presentation that was considerably closer to the form and spirit of the original. Some of Jeffers' adaptations are a bit makeshift -- including his handling of the chorus (always a problem in modern productions of Greek tragedy) and his avoidance of the spectacular and supernatural at the end. In the original, Medea is supposed to appear out of reach -- above the roof of her house, ready to make her getaway in a chariot drawn by dragons. In the Jeffers adaptation, she is down on earth with Jason, and the interpolated explanations of why he does not simply hack her to pieces with his sword are dramatically unconvincing. If you are going to do Greek tragedy at all, there is something to be said for doing it without modernizing compromises, and the Studio production made an eloquent argument for that policy.

At the Eisenhower, on the other hand, the advantages of an adequate production budget are apparent. The costumes and set are excellent (though one wonders, momentarily, why a house in Corinth does not have Corinthian columns), and the lighting is superb, particularly at the beginning in the transition from night to morning of that eventful, bloody day.

MEDEA -- At the Eisenhower Theater through April 10.