RICH IN SPECTACLE and emotion, the Wisdom Bridge Company's "Kabuki Medea" at the Terrace Theater is not only a fully realized adaptation of the Greek tragedy, but also a fine, accessible initiation into the mysteries of Kabuki, Japan's traditional theater.
Medea's story is already well-known: the terrible vengeance of a woman who deserts her homeland, even kills her brother for the man she loves, only to be abandoned by him for a younger woman when she is no longer useful to him. But with its theatrical approximation of cinema's slow motion and freeze frame, Kabuki explores the contours of the oft-told tale, lingering over ordinarily fleeting moments and concentrating emotions, making them more deeply felt and understood.
As "freely adapted" by Bill Strieb and Lou Anne Wright from Euripides' work, "KabuMedea" is strongly feminist -- railing against the plight of women who must depend on men to shape their lives. Medea proclaims her revenge as the vengeance of all betrayed women and gives a dire warning of what is in store for those who dare to love. "The stronger the love, the stronger the hate," an embittered Medea tells us.
Director/designer Shozo Sato, who has done Kabuki interpretations of "Macbeth" and "Madame Butterfly," has filled this "Medea" with striking images: Jason slays a grotesquely beautiful golden dragon in an "underwater" ballet, complete with whimsical silvery fishes (like Tarzan, Jason can remain underwater for what seems forever); a dance with shimmering lengths of gold fabric suggests the weaving of the poisoned robe Medea uses to take her cunning revenge on the princess who steals her Jason's love.
That revenge is brilliantly executed: First, the chorus recounts the events, then the revenge is mimed through an elaborate costume dance. Where the Greeks take the plentiful death and gore offstage and come back on to tell us what happened, Kabuki revels in the murder and mayhem. But in Japanese theater, violence is so stylized it is made beautiful -- which makes it more frightening still.
"Kabuki Medea" is splendidly costumed by Sato, mixing peacock patterns and jewel- like colors in the elegantly daring Japanese way. The musical score uses both traditional Kabuki instrumentation and electronic sound, and the feedback squalls that accompany Medea's passion are especially effective. The English diction is transformed into an imitation of Japanese, and the exaggerated emphasis can draw out a word to extreme lengths -- I counted nine beats in the word "daughter."
As Medea, Barbara E. Robertson has a wonderfully expressive face, emphasized by the kumadori makeup, which enhances the brow, eyes and lips. Her movements are graceful, and her voice, with its delicate rasp, is well-suited to the roller-coaster inflections it must endure. As Medea becomes progressively more fierce and supernatural, evolving from coquettish, lovestruck princess to a towering masked figure of vengeance, Robertson strikes frozen mie poses that heighten Medea's mocking, vengeful smiles and enraged glares -- she is sometimes literally cross-eyed with rage.
KABUKI MEDEA -- At the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater through August 3.