Decidedly, this is the season for turning Greek tragedy inside out. After Arena Stage's "The Gospel at Colonus," which recast a Sophocles play as a rousing, tambourine-shaking Sunday service in a black Pentecostal church, we now have "Kabuki Medea," which renders Euripides' drama of a woman scorned in the exotic, highly stylized fashion of traditional Japanese theater.
The latter is the creation of the Wisdom Bridge Theatre, one of the two companies in AT & T's summer showcase of Chicago theater at the Kennedy Center. Wisdom Bridge has already given us "In the Belly of the Beast," a grim and unflinching account of prison life. To go from that to the lavish spectacle of "Kabuki Medea" suggests, if nothing else, a dramatic range as admirable as it is daring. While "Kabuki Medea," which opened Saturday night in the Terrace Theater, is apt to strike most viewers as the more esoteric offering, it is, like its predecessor, galvanized by the ferocity of its lead performer, in this case Barbara E. Robertson, as a Medea from medieval Okinawa.
Arbitrary as the conceit may initially appear, there is actually a perfectly sound reason for giving Medea a black wig that extends nearly to the floor, wrapping her in the embroidered finery of a Japanese princess and having her declaim her gathering passion in that atonal Kabuki chant that seemingly rises and falls at will and leaves no vowel unextended. She is, after all, a sorceress who uses her magic to win the heart of Jason and then, when he leaves her for a younger woman, to wreak a horrible vengeance.
Today Euripides is hailed for his feminist sensibilities and his play is commonly thought to be the first modern drama, revolving as it does around a husband, a wife and the other woman. But if Medea is "the essence of all betrayed women," she is also something more: the dangerous outsider, whose fury and fanaticism jeopardize the rational underpinnings of Greek society. Jealousy makes her a monster, and the world of Kabuki -- with its hissing fiends and red-tongued villains who reveal the depths of their souls by making fierce faces and striking forbidding poses -- is anything but inimical to her passion.
What designer/director Shozo Sato wants to do is restore to "Medea" a sense of majestic otherworldliness, put it back in time and emphasize what is both remote and disproportionate in the story of a woman who, lest we forget, weaves poisonous garments and slaughters her own sons to get revenge on her faithless mate. The massacre of those two innocents -- cherubic-looking dolls, manipulated by "invisible" prop men garbed in black -- is the indisputable highlight of the Wisdom Bridge production. Robertson also transforms herself into a puppet at that moment, all limp and hollow, until prop men take her in hand as well, guide her arms, position her head, move her feet and literally drive her to murder.
It's as if all human impulse had drained from the actress and blind fate alone were propelling her forward. At the same time, the dolls take on a miraculously lifelike appearance. Illusion and reality trade places before our eyes. The effect is as mesmerizing as the dexterity of Sato's staging is breathtaking.
Not all of "Kabuki Medea" is of such a high order. In fact, it takes a fair amount of good faith to get beyond the operating premise. The English language does not lend itself willingly to the distorted wailings of Kabuki. Under the circumstances, a line like Medea's "I would rather fight a dozen wars than go through childbirth once" can provoke far more laughter than is warranted. Sharp and controlled as Robertson's Medea is, Dean Fortunato's Jason sometimes seems to have sprung out of an old Sid Caesar sketch. It would take very little, in fact, to turn a first-act mating dance between him (in a red sumo diaper) and Medea into a true howler.
There's no faulting the authenticity of Sato's direction or the various conventions he employs. But still, an unintentional air of parody seems to hover over much of the early portion of "Kabuki Medea." The supporting players are not unskilled, but they are relative neophytes in an art form that commands the discipline of a lifetime in Japan. Well-meaning as the Wisdom Bridge actors are, their ersatz gravity can be amusing despite itself.
It is only as Robertson's Medea assumes her demonic force that the production convinces us of its true seriousness. Unlike Western theater, which tends to focus on inner psychology, Kabuki puts all the anger and pain and passion right out there for everyone to see. Medea is aptly described as "ready to burst" -- indeed, her outsized emotions are of the teeth-grinding, eye-rolling sort. Robertson makes a first-act transformation from thundering rage to sweet coquettishness a spectacle in itself.
Spectacle is, in one sense, the name of the game, and it can be sumptuous. In Bill Strieb and Lou Anne Wright's adaptation, the golden fleece is the golden dragon, a sinuous creature inhabiting the ocean depths. Jason takes it on in an epic slow-motion underwater battle, while industrious prop men scurry back and forth with huge quilted fish on poles. Later, Jason's new bride (Roone O'Donnell) dons the poisonous robes that Medea has sent her as a wedding present. As the golden fibers begin to eat into her flesh, the costume itself undergoes a startling metamorphosis to become a swirling tapestry of fire. The eye is forever being courted and seduced by the rich fabrics, the vivid makeup and the bold lighting.
"Kabuki Medea" has one foot in the West and the other in the East, which makes it an admittedly strange hybrid. (Even stranger, I keep thinking, is that it hails from Chicago.) As such, however, it often manages to gives us fresh insights into a familiar myth, just as the myth keeps us from getting too disoriented in that faraway theatrical kingdom that is Kabuki. What is it they say about one hand washing the other?
Kabuki Medea, adapted from Euripides' "Medea" by Bill Strieb and Lou Anne Wright; conceived, designed and directed by Shozo Sato; lighting, Michael S. Philippi; electronic music, Michael Cerri. With Barbara E. Robertson, Dean Fortunato, Roone O'Donnell, Christine McHugh. At the Terrace Theater through Aug. 3.