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Deadly Theater Meets Dead Horse
By Gordon Rogoff

Medea, by Euripides
Uncle Vanya, By Anton Chekhov
Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
Brooklyn Academy of Music, 2002-03




Fiona Shaw in full battle cry is a force of army engineering more than nature--or even acting for that matter. Not that she isn’t carrying an arsenal of acting tricks at every turn: a master of both rant and silence, she sweeps past the narrative hurdles in Richard II, Eliot’s Waste Land, and, more recently, Euripides’s Medea as if texts exist mainly to be crushed into submission by an unbridled will to own the acting universe. Along the way, she calls upon voice, voice, and more voice, now caressing some soft consonants, now heaving extended phrases into unguarded air sustaining them in a pitched, fluting tremble that wishes to be music when it is only monolith. Every note, every gesture emerges from calculation more than thought, and heaven help the other actors caught in her fireworks power. Her Jason in Medea (Jonathan Cake) attempts to outshout her at the obvious junctures, and he’s capable of matching her serpentine sinew with buffed muscle that ought to humble her, but apart from the way the text is meant to settle things, he hasn’t a fighting chance anyway, so driven is she by forces in her head that defy argument at every turn. Even if I didn’t know that her boys are doomed, I can see the end in every beginning because she can’t stop herself from starting at the end.

“Who can stop grief’s avalanche once it starts to roll?” asks a woman in the Chorus, burdened with a Scottish accent in Deborah Warner’s up-dated high-tech production, itself featuring plexiglass and a center stage wading pool that share in the general placelessness so celebrated these days when visual chic assumes greater importance than textual illumination. There’s no doubt about the avalanche starting to roll, but where’s the grief? Even in momentary pause, following an opening sequence in which both Nurse and Chorus flail from one side to another like bumper cars babbling in run-on sentences, Shaw’s Medea can only sidle slowly from the wings, wearing shades; within seconds, it’s clear that this arranged silence carries only the meaning of its contrast with the frenzy that precedes it. More a program note than a conveyed idea, it is signaling the news that Medea must have been in tears recently, but given all the obvious contemporary associations, it can also be seen as a fashion statement or the gesture of a movie star (try Alexandra del Lago in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth) noisily trying not to call attention to herself by calling attention to herself. Then she speaks in four short bursts, ever so conversationally: “My lovely life is lost. (Pause) I want to die. (Pause) He’s the vilest man alive (pause) my husband.” At which point she laughs, thus eliciting the same from her audience; finally, “I am a souvenir from foreign parts,” this time punctuated not by a pause, but a kick back of one foot from the knee--still another solicitation of laughter from an audience now gaga in anticipation. All these controlling devices can be construed as Medea’s, of course, but as they take over the instrument and the narrative, they keep setting up barriers against the original, primeval events peculiar to Attic tragedy in favor of actorial display: a show of feeling, not the thing itself.

Then, too, she exhibits an alarmingly literal mind, prone to illustration, as if we won’t get the joke or the grief without her decorating assistance--churning an imaginary brew when speaking of a witch, dipping into a cake slice when contemplating which road to death she might take, suddenly interjecting, “This is delicious.” By the middle of this solo performance, it’s clear that when she dashes over to a pile of boxes or other objects, then hops onto a higher level, asking what Apollo says, then jumping down just as suddenly as she jumped up, she has complete run of the stage, the others, even Jason much of the time, more satellites than characters, either locked in space or given to following her orbits. When, finally, she tells the Chorus that she will kill her children, despite the oath just sworn to Aegeus, she adds, “I’m a woman. I have to cry.” But if that’s the case, whatever happened to the shades?

Shaw and Warner are too smart, I keep thinking, to spread so much incoherence over a text already compromised by its origins in a world we can never claim to know as we know our own. If Euripides can be adopted as our contemporary, as Jan Kott adopted Shakespeare, then we have rights of our own to consider: for one, the right to talk back, as we might wish the Chorus would do, faced with the unholy destruction so clearly announced when it still might be headed off at the pass; for another, the right to protest that, in hijacking this play into street clothes, it has become a bizarre display of psychological warfare gone public, which finally has lost all contact with Euripides’s immense canvas crisscrossing contrasts between barbarism and civil order. As William Arrowsmith puts it in his essay, "A Greek Theater of Ideas," Medea and Jason “are both destroyers, destroyers of themselves, of others…And it is this destructiveness above all else which Euripides wants his audience to observe: the spirit of brutal self-interest and passionate revenge which threatens both life and culture, and which is purposely set in sharp contrast to life-enhancing Athens where the arts flourish…” Sharp contrasts, however, are not part of the Warner-Shaw scheme, so into the wading pool and out with the bloodied bath water go all those layers so unavailable to splashy directorial strokes--above all the idea dramatized by Medea’s escape (in the text, but not in this production) to Athens on the Sun’s golden chariot, an idea that “forces the private agon of Jason and Medea,” says Arrowsmith, “ to assume a larger public significance, namely that both have lost all possible wisdom, a loss clearly pointing to “a tragic defeat for man and human culture.”

It’s odd, too, that the Shaw-Warner team, striving so strenuously to highlight the play’s modernity, are content with the obvious inconsistencies that come with revisionist territory, some of them simply a matter of theatrical strategy: are we in the streets, a playground, a bathhouse, and if so, why does this raving maniac have the run of the place without a cop in sight to check her noise, if not her raucous threats? It may be one thing for a Scottish Chorus woman to be dancing an Irish jig, but surely it’s another for her and the others to remain so splattered with paralysis that not one of them acts to call the cops or save the kids. Why, when Medea asks “Why did I ever leave my father’s house and trust a Greek?” does it suddenly loom as a trivial intrusion, not unlike a later observation, “Do golden lives mean happiness?” What is served by all the blasting sound-design screeches when Medea is doing the deed, or all the decorative blood spattered on the plexiglass doors and window? And then, what are we to make of the sound suddenly cut down to an off-stage radio emitting low-key jazz, almost as if we’ve been witness instead to the poker game in Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire? Where in the name of sense and sensibility are we? And the answer has to be a theatrical playpen void of anchor, placement, ideas, more installation than drama, a shameless celebration of acting talent run amok and quite content to surround itself--by the way--with actors who make the showcase easy by exhibiting so little talent themselves.

And here I pause for a contextual confession. In the best of times, I am myself a Hamlet-manque, more adept at delay than action, though I still insist that Hamlet, bless him, delays not merely to push the drama to its necessary limits, but also to engage himself in an inescapably alluring moral quagmire. That said, I’m not so wedded to self-deception that I make claims on Hamlet’s lofty territory. Instead, I admit now that, in hesitating for months to write this response to Shaw and Warner’s popular success, I’ve been thinking that “not to be” might be the best revenge against the tawdry mess that so much theatre-making has become: incoherence as a badge of honor (effects vs. ideas), decoration as a substitute for meaning (the same), and mediocrity as a democratic right (also the same). In short, I’ve been inclined to give up. Or rather (and not so short) to give up when bombarded with so many shamefully lazy productions that reveal their desperation at arousing an audience with anything less than a jump-cutting noise meant to compete successfully with the high-tech, take-no-prisoners stupidity of marketplace media in which every breath, every grunt, every gesture looks like a commercial.

To be fair, not least to myself, I should add that, having seen Medea at BAM, I bought myself a ticket later to see how Warner might adapt her work to a Broadway proscenium, and perhaps, to a perceptibly different audience. Not much, as it happens: the Nurse was moderately less breathless in her opening passage, but not more articulate or pointed than before; the others still behaved like extras wandering on to the Warner lot; and one textual “correction” revealed a self-consciousness that might be interpreted as damage control. Where Jason at BAM had said: “All this…for sex?” he was saying now, “All this…for jealousy?”--not bad as a sign that even Warner could recognize a laugh line that, once said and done, was exasperatingly inappropriate. It’s safe to say, however, that nothing substantial was subjected to fresh thought: Medea remained in place as a Tony candidate, a new play that might be re-titled The Comedy of Terrors.

Still another pause: I have referred to “popular success,” and there can be no doubt now that this Medea, holding a distorting mirror up to the nature of Euripides’s tragedy, has found an audience at BAM and on Broadway that swings into standing ovations at the drop of a houselight, bull-dozed by Shaw’s indisputable high-wire technique, self-proclaiming and thoughtless though it may be, possibly because they’ve invested so much cash and time in the hope of live-action excitement, or that half of them are being bullied by the other half into a thoughtless submission equal to the production’s, or--more neutrally--that they can see the actors over the standing bodies only by standing themselves. Whatever the explanation--and it’s a newish phenomenon at concerts and operas also--it must stand also as a reminder to some of us that the critical act need not surrender its own analytical and spontaneous response in deference to an intimidating mob.

I might have held my peace on this front, and even withheld my review of Medea had it not been for two standing ovations more recently at BAM given to Sam Mendes’s parade of High School inanities under cover of Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night, also from Britain. Again, unequal casting left both plays in a limbo where relationships were never explored, solo “moments” flying thick and fast while the director supplied the most minimal attention to narrative detail, preferring instead to rely on his battery of special effects: a framing device for each play (a trestle table for Vanya with a spread of decorous grass in the back, and a giant picture frame itself for Twelfth Night with a hundred candles where the grass had been for the Chekhov play, and a canopy of lamps floating over the cinemascopic central action) and as a consequence, creating for both plays extended exits and entrances that bring what little has been happening to an excruciating halt, as if the tempi for each play can be the same, or that adagio ponderoso is a steadily bearable tempo anyway.

Some solos, particularly those by Simon Russell Beale as Vanya and Malvolio, are better than bearable: a true actor with a gift for economical choice and physical detail--his Vanya rolling like an aimless beach ball from one side of the stage to the other, his Malvolio leaning into an officiously dainty ballet walk, left arm hanging idly by his side--he’s also in full command of that splayed, noisy outburst from a Vanya clearly more disgusted with himself than with anyone else, and of the menacing quiet he finds for the “notoriously abused” Malvolio at the end. On the evidence, however, he’s going it alone, neither hindered nor helped by a director content to be statically visual without ever arranging space for actors to stalk one another in urgent conversation. And to top it all, Mendes can’t resist one painfully unfunny and vulgar arrangement: the laborious appearance of a large sofa on a stage otherwise populated by an army of Thonet chairs for both plays, placed there for the truly specious effect of concealing two little fart machines under the cushions so that Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew can sink into them on behalf of several flatulent emissions. True to his name, Sir Toby does belch a few times in earlier scenes, but just in case we’re too dense to get the point of Toby’s libertarian nature, Mendes dumps a signal to us that he really should have been named Sir Toby Fart. Let’s hope the future Sir Sam learns to mend his adolescent ways.

Meanwhile, back to the more pressing alarms roused by the acclaimed Medea, disdaining tragic scope, celebrating hip imagery while ignoring the anguish hanging over our new century ever since it was captured in a spectacularly stealthy coup d’etat by a new gang of barbarians hell-bent on dominating the world stage. But even if this rampaging performance might be seen to be soliciting a modern political stance to match its modernist theatrical coups, it’s a barely visible politics by the end, one that limits itself--at best--to repeated harangues from that old suspect, the melodramatically wronged woman. True, Shaw’s Medea is more articulate than Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce, but then she’s working with the ghost of a classier poet than Crawford ever knew. It became all too clear, even without the missing chariot, however, that the Warner-Shaw team was effectively performing a major lobotomy of Euripides when it might have been more to the point had the text been used as a springboard instead for their own new play--a meditation, perhaps, on the consequences of revenge as a way of life and death, or on love as a cruel, even homicidal, myth; or, yet again, about a public wrenched into blind neutrality and dangerous confusion when confronted by a seizure of power prepared to obliterate civil compacts and public interests. Anything except this exhausted remnant from the annals of victim psychology.

And then, like a deus ex machina intervening in my own exhausted psychology, my partner and I slipped into our seats at the PanPan Festival of International Theatre in Dublin last January only to discover MedEia, produced by Amsterdam’s Dood Paard, and written by Oscar van Woensel--though, as it turns out, written in a collaborative manner with two other actors in the company, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker. Here, at last, is a remarkably plain-spoken new play that gives genuine voice, most of all, to the Chorus, here played by the three collaborators, moving gently and firmly from one gender to another while slipping unannounced into fresh thoughts from Medea and Jason themselves. The text alone (published in the next issue of Theater magazine) deliberately bypasses stage directions or descriptions of what the company actually presents, beginning with the voice of Maria Callas emerging from the darkness in a lamentation from Cherubini’s opera Medea, and continuing into four scenes and three interludes, the latter featuring TV monitor slide-shows with (mostly) pop accompaniment that, in most circumstances, leave me in one form of dudgeon or the other, high or low.

In this instance, however, with Callas haunting the memory bank, and the quiet shock of the devastating opening line that follows her--“I am so sad”--to say nothing of the unmannered, yet quietly insistent, presence of the three actors, moving from their initial upstage distance into a scene-by-scene forward placement backed by the white sails they haul down from the ceiling to mark one section of the text from another, the entire experience presents an unembarrassed blend of sacred and profane thought. And this mysterious mix bridges worlds otherwise torn apart by too many interpretive differences, leaving Chorus and actors alike in numbed awareness of their essential helplessness. Yet, even so, they are still standing in the final moments, merciless about themselves, Medea, Jason--us--but not entirely without salvation, because they have demonstrated one weapon all along: the eloquence they can summon when talking to power. By the end, then, they are almost as close to us as we are to each other, tellers of a tale spoken in what they call “broken English,” a claim weirdly untrue, though a sign of their essential modesty, surely, since what they write and speak is as undecorated and direct as an ancient Greek statue.

And, in sharp contrast with the hortatory private wars fought by Shaw and Warner, this MedEia is also close to the news of the day, not by trying so strenuously, but by simply giving voice, almost like testament prophets, to all the damage running out of control. Take, for just one example, their pre-Rumsfeld scolding-- “You are in the rich world now…What would you have been without me…Nothing.” It’s as if, by air-lifting both fact and paranoia into their story, they are dramatizing what little space has been left for sanity to breathe. A play that reduces itself in conventional terms to a screed about hurt and rage has been rescued suddenly for more peaceful purposes, telling me, at least, what I need to hear whenever I’m drawn to public space--namely, that others are noticing the violations causing so much suffering, that sharers out there are willing not to be so secret after all. It’s truly wondrous to walk behind the following exchange:

Maybe it is better not to be one of the major
Dramatis personae
Our lives in the chorus
My life as the chorus
it is troubled enough
To witness this business
it’s more than I can bear

And what I find back there is witness to complexity, recognition, barely speakable anguish--elegantly laid across a performing space with an honesty and grace that elude most public exchange, not least in our theaters. The actors, incidentally, do not flaunt themselves, nor do they make claims on technical prowess; neither do they exhibit the slightest sign of self-pity or pride: instead, they simply present the result of what looks like old-fashioned hand-crafted labor. Woensel, especially, is the anti-Shaw, a long-limbed, resonating free-spirit without guile, never pretending anything even as he succeeds in touching on everything. He’s the real woman inside every man, and the truly manly man unafraid of woman.

One final observation. Dood Paard means Dead Horse, surely the one Woensel and friends are incapable of beating as they go gently into each good night of creation.

[Gordon Rogoff is Professor of Dramaturgy and Dramatic Literature at the Yale School or Drama, author of Vanishing Acts (Yale U P, 2000), and recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1991.]




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