This past weekend, the music and theatre and dance departments put on a collaborative performance of Medea, a play by ancient Greek playwright Euripides. The Macalester Orchestra, conducted by professor Mark Mandarano, played Samuel Barber’s “Medea Suite” while dancers performed choreography by professor Wynn Fricke that was adapted from Martha Graham’s original work “Cave of the Heart.” Actors, meanwhile, directed by Barbra Berlovitz, performed Euripides’ original text. The collaborative performance was, on the whole, a definite success, from its powerful dancing and orchestration to its strong acting.
The plot of Medea is simple enough to follow, and the program notes provided some helpful background for the story. Medea, played in this production by dancer Molly Flerlage ’18 and actor Niara Williams ’18, is married to Jason, played by dancer Toan Thanh Doan ’19 and actor Matthew Davids ’18. After Medea learns that Jason intends to spurn her and marry a princess (played by dancer Midori Hasegawa ’19) with a powerful father (Creon, played by actor Dominic Rodgers ’19), Medea decides to murder the princess along with her own children (two boys played by fourth graders Ozzie Cooper and Kai Strunk).
The show opens in the middle of the action: Medea has already learned about Jason’s intent to marry the princess. Instead of cramming lots of plot points into the show, we are instead taken along Medea’s decision-making process. The chorus (dancer Meghan Johnson ’18 and actor Hannah Viederman ’18) and the nurse (played by actor Jesse Claire ’20) help the audience along, providing background and clarification and also pushing back on Medea’s decisions, a helpful perspective to have. Williams and Flerlage are both riveting Medeas, and watching Medea’s despair manifest in both movement and monologue is a disturbing and powerful experience.
If the components of music, dance and performance seem like a lot, you’re not alone, and indeed, going into the production, I was nervous about how each of the parts would come together. It seemed possible that the transitions between each piece would be disjointed or unclear. Luckily, the moves from spoken word to movement to music and back again are executed nearly seamlessly: it feels cohesive and complete. It helps that several of the actors have dancing experience, and are able to cleanly pass off their movements to their dancing counterparts. The costumes add additional clarity in the transitions; the two Medeas are both dressed in scarlet gowns, the two chorus characters are in long gray tunics, and the Jasons both wear matching vests. The set also contributes to a cohesive production. There are two stages in front of the orchestra, one raked and one flat, visually divided by three large outstretched metal pipes. The pipes provide a place for the actors and dancers to swing and sit, and the raked stage divides the characters from one another when they speak in big scenes. The chorus actor Hannah Viederman ’18 is unfortunately stuck far downstage in the audience, which perhaps is intended to make the audience feel a part of her perspective, but instead just makes her difficult to see and hear, a small blip in an otherwise excellently staged production.
The music blends into the rest of the production without intruding on the heightened intensity of the acting and dancing. Nor is the music limited to just dance; in one scene, when Medea discusses moving to Athens under the protection of Aegeus (Richard Lee Graham ’18), music plays in the background.
The two characters sit on the front edge of the stage, bathed in golden light, and the music emphasizes the heavenly — yet ominous — qualities of Athens. It makes the scene seem ethereal and dreamlike, and it was easy to root for Medea and her future away from Jason, who is superbly punchable in his self-righteous arrogance as portrayed by Davids. It’s also possible to sympathize with Medea’s murder of the princess, if only because the death is portrayed so beautifully and purposefully by Hasegawa’s solo. As the princess arches gracefully in death, Creon slowly slides her offstage, and the pain of his loss is palpable as the two disappear beneath the raked stage.
It’s harder to root for Medea later on, though, and I was not entirely convinced of the agony of her decision to kill her sons. Medea’s sons, played by two charming fourth graders, flit throughout the show, their affection for their mother Medea and father Jason carefully choreographed and staged. I couldn’t help but feel a little hollow when the children rest their heads on Medea’s shoulders, carefully placed and folded. The nurse seems more distraught about the murders of Medea’s sons than Medea herself, and Williams’ agonized cries of “My children!” seem to be coming from the same place as her rage with Jason, rather than from a particular place of motherhood. Whether this matters or not is another question; perhaps it is more important for Medea to kill her sons because they represent Jason, and her rage should be synonymous with her agon
Medea is a play where it’s hard to root for any character. It’s a bloodless play, in that all the violence occurs either offstage or in the form of dance. This makes it easy for the moral ambiguity to stand out: is Medea evil for killing her children? Is Creon wrong for banishing Medea? Does the princess deserve her death? These are intriguing questions, and Macalester’s collaborative production proves the perfect platform upon which to consider them.
*In the print version the incorrect name was printed.