In a mythology known for bloodiness, the Greek story of Medea stands out. Medea was a princess of Colchis, unwise enough to fall in love with Jason on his quest for the Golden Fleece. She helped him outwit her father’s tests and then fled with him to Corinth. After she bore him two sons, Jason left her for Creusa, the daughter of Corinth’s king, Creon. Medea punished Jason by killing his young lover, the king, and then her own two children. While there are many variations on the ending — in some, Medea is far less vengeful — Euripides chose the most dramatic. Now the Shotgun Players bring Medea to agonized, powerful life at the UC Theatre in a mesmerizing, colorful adaptation by Robinson Jeffers.
By focusing on the ferocious princess of Colchis, Euripides sheds light on the role of women in ancient Greek society. In a city-state where wives are essentially chattel, expected to accept their lot with equanimity, Medea blazes like a torch. She snarls to the chorus after it suggests she let go of her anger, “I am not a Greek woman,” and then likens the wives to dogs who lick the hand that strikes them. Euripides wrote the play for a competition, and, not surprisingly, it did not do well, but it certainly speaks to modern audiences. Particularly anyone who ever, say, put her partner through school, raised the kids, and then found herself dumped for someone younger (Medea says of Creusa, “that young breastless girl”). Yes, Medea is relentless and bloodthirsty, but we can see where she’s coming from, and there is a certain nervous, guilty excitement in our connection to her as she wreaks her vengeance.
Gliding silkily from raging sorceress to heartbroken mother to seductive “Who, me?” innocent, Beth Donohue as Medea is an actress at the top of her game. Bolstered by live organ accompaniment, slinking, sulking, and storming around Mellie Katakalos’ dramatically lit round stage in the UC Theatre, Donohue gives us an unforgettable, take-no-prisoners Medea. Make no mistake, this is Donohue’s show — she blows away everyone else on stage. Before she even makes her first entrance, there is the Voice howling in pain from behind closed doors, and that intensity never lets up, even after the last curtain call as she closes those doors behind her. There are some men in this play, but they seem pale and paltry beside Medea, like kindling.
Indeed, none of the men who encountered Medea seemed to truly understand her power or her temper. Foolish Jason was happy to use her skills to achieve his own goals, then conveniently forgot how lethal she was — to his own detriment. King Creon got it — as is made clear when he attempted to banish her, rightly understanding that she was a threat for as long as she remained in his city. He wasn’t fast enough, though, and by allowing her a day to prepare for her departure, the king gave Medea just the time she needed to ensure his destruction. Even King Ageus of Athens miscalculated: Medea fled to Athens after the murders, where she eventually married Ageus and then tried to get him to poison their son. Her scheming revealed, Medea once again took flight, this time to Asia. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that these men were blinded by their desires — Jason for power, Ageus for an heir — to the eventual price Medea would exact.
Director Russell Blackwood does a fine job of integrating the Felliniesque chorus of blue-lipped Greek women (Nina Auslander, Kenya Briggs, and Bekka Fink) into the story. Much as in Shotgun’s production last year of Iphigenia at Aulis, these players are real characters — in this case, scandal-seeking neighbors who come to gawk at Medea’s misfortune. To their despair, they witness more than they bargained for. The chorus harmonizes well; while the solo performances are not as strong, Fink stands out for her range and a nice gravely, forbidding effect.
The design is lush, especially the hothouse-flowered chorus, Medea’s garb, and the near-constant uplighting, which forms evocative shadows on the cast and a snake-festooned set and ceiling. The overall effect is not inconsistent with the spirit of Attic theater — epic, vigorous, and saturated.