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Medea

City Theatre digs into the ancient Greek tragedy with a wink at antiquated gender politics

Reviewed by Adam Roberts, Fri., June 29, 2012

Revenge is a dish best served ...: Suzanne Balling's Medea suffering at the hands of Trevor Bissell's Jason
Revenge is a dish best served ...: Suzanne Balling's Medea suffering at the hands of Trevor Bissell's Jason

Medea

City Theatre, 3823-D Airport, 524-2870
www.citytheatreaustin.org
Through July 1
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

"She plays Medea later this week," offers emcee Pseudolus to those tragedians attending Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. "Tonight I am pleased to announce a comedy," he promises, admonishing those hell-bent on a darker evening at the theatre: "Tragedy tomorrow, comedy tonight!"

It's no coincidence that Sondheim chose Medea for his hallmark of horror in Forum's opening number; with the title antiheroine commiting a double filicide to avenge her husband's unfaithfulness, one would be hard-pressed to pinpoint a more tragic tale in the annals of ancient drama. But at City Theatre on Saturday, I was struck by how a contemporary audience can respond so variously to Medea – there were at least as many laughs as tears witnessed among the observers. Laughs in the midst of such tragedy are strange to imagine and even stranger to experience, but with regard to the (anti-? pro-?) feminist politics of Medea: Well, let's just say that they don't call it antiquity for nothin'.

This wink at the antiquated ideas of "man vs. woman" in Euripides' play provides the highlight of director Karen Sneed's interpretation (in addition to most of those laughs). Critical theories abound as to the playwright's intended messages in Medea, but regardless of which side of the fence he's on (if either), it's clear that Euripides very much intended to address questions of gender politics. So it's sometimes difficult to ascertain whether what is being said is meant to be taken as parodic or searing, laughable or wholly serious. Sneed skillfully balances these questions in her take, as do her actors (especially Suzanne Balling, whose Medea really gets going about a third of the way into the evening). Sneed lets us know that we don't have to feel bad about laughing at points throughout the short play – certainly, we get many tongue-in-cheek glances at the misogynist rhetoric here, and what Euripides himself intended doesn't really seem as important as the contexts we're given in this production.

The primary stumbling block of the evening is, for me, a confusing concept of costuming. While City Theatre Company usually does a commendable job with a smallish production budget, here eras are (mis)matched in ways that are difficult to decipher. Medea's initial dress, for instance, seems more in place at Neiman Marcus than amongst the other, sometimes equally confusing pieces worn by her onstage colleagues.

For many, Medea may not seem like an inviting evening at the theatre. But if it's "tragedy [and comedy?] tonight" that's on your mind, you might consider giving City Theatre Company's production a shot.

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