Austin Shakespeare's Medea

This production of the Greek tragedy asks the audience to consider the whole story before passing judgment

Erik Mathew and Franchelle Stewart Dorn
Erik Mathew and Franchelle Stewart Dorn (Photo by Bret Brookshire)

"Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," wrote William Congreve in 1697's The Mourning Bride. These words, famously paraphrased, are often attributed negatively to the inspiring strength of a woman who has just plain had enough of the shit hand she's been dealt. But can we always shrug our shoulders and sweep atrocities under the rug because of a conveniently explanative idiom? Austin Shakespeare's Medea asks us to consider the whole story before passing judgment.

Given the long overdue dialogues gaining steam around feminism and gender equality in America, it's difficult at first to separate the performance from the message. What you'll see is a rather no-frills Medea; there is no agenda-based insight here, only an invitation to examine the well-acted piece on its own merits. The plot is as simple as they come: Medea, discarded by her husband Jason in favor of the Corinthian king's daughter, is going to kill the king, his daughter, and then her own children as vengeance. For many, the mythos beyond the confines of Euripides' script – translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish – explains (if not justifies) Medea's actions. Theatre makers have spent ages justifying the means to Medea's ends, citing her agency and assertion of power in a male-dominated world or even the abstract of Medea as a tragic hero, victim to malevolent gods (her undying love for Jason the result of Eros' arrow). For me, infanticide strips a character of all humanity and sympathy, and I'd call out the Greek classic as the epitome of the "overreacting, oversensitive" female stereotype that plagues us still: the thoroughly rotten trope of women going bat-shit, stabby crazy because of a man, even if that man's vile actions are the impetus for her empowerment. But that's admittedly through my male lens, fairly enlightened though it may be.

Refreshingly, Austin Shakespeare Artistic Director Ann Ciccolella uses this Medea as the beginning of a discussion rather than the end, highlighting the questions we should be asking instead of pandering to our preconceived answers. Anchoring the show is the indomitable Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who digs deep into every dark corner of Medea's psyche to deliver a finely honed and beautifully realized character. As Euripides intended, Medea often shares the stage with only one other character at a time, showcasing her ability to manipulate men in power, such as Erik Mathew's wonderfully arrogant Jason, Reginald Brown's boisterous King Aigeus, or Michael Miller's slimy King Creon. Emily Gilardi's period-appropriate costumes feel organic, with barefoot characters grounded on Tara Houston's set, a simple suggestion of Greek columns using hung white linen and a wildly angled slab anchoring the playing space – cloth and stone, order and chaos, a fascinating duality suggesting there's more than one point of view allowed. Patrick W. Anthony seems to illuminate the space from within the souls of the characters, using shadow, light, and color to heighten emotion without distraction. The only environmental misstep is William Meadows' sound design, which uses compositions by Greg Bolin (based on themes by Jim Hankinson) to ill effect, manipulating the audience unnecessarily, as the performances need no assistance. A chorus of dancers (strikingly choreographed by Toni Bravo) adds an interesting aesthetic element, juxtaposing the idea of voiceless women with Helen Merino's strong voice of reason, speaking truth to power as the Chorus Leader.

Debate around this play has continued for nearly two-and-a-half millennia, speaking to the ongoing power of live theatre as a forum for discussion and self-reflection in society, and the solid, presentational nature of this production allows for that in droves. Divisive conversation is still conversation, and you can bet some discussions will occur on the drive home. Audiences will likely keep this in mind long after curtain, wondering if Medea deserves redemption or damnation.


Medea

Rollins Studio Theatre at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside
www.austinshakespeare.org
Through March 6
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Shakespeare, Ann Ciccolella, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Erik Mathew, Reginald Brown, Michael Miller, Helen Merino, Emily Gilardi, Tara Houston, Patrick W. Anthony, William Meadows, Greg Bolin, Toni Bravo, Euripides, Frederic Raphael, Kenneth McLeish

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