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Cutting your heart out to spite your face

A desperate housewife of Corinth in Heritage Theatre's "Medea" brings a new translation of the classic play created by GVSU classical professor Dr. Diane Rayor.
Underwriting support from:


Heritage Theatre Group

Spectrum Theatre, Grand Rapids

Plays July 19-21 at 8pm

Medea is, frankly, not a good time. It's never been. It’s a wickedly dark play about a mother (Medea) who decides to murder her husband’s mistress, the mistress’s father and king, and then her two children. Talk about cutting out your heart to spite your face. Medea is a revenge story like no other, set in a world of absolute patriarchy, with poisonous tiaras and as much keening and grief-stricken monologues as one evening of theatre can handle.

So why do theatres continue to mount such bleak, unrepentantly sad show? The latest version, from Heritage Theatre now playing at the Spectrum Theatre, is a debut of sorts. Directed by Karen Libman, it is a showcase of a new translation by GVSU classical professor Dr. Diane Rayor, who was commissioned by Cambridge University Press to do it. (The Press published Dr. Rayor’s Antigone, which was also produced locally a couple of years ago.) The Heritage Theatre has as its mission to put on the classics — from every era — so “great stories can continue to entertain and enlighten.”

I will admit that I wished for a freer hand with the source material in this Heritage production, more of an adaptation than a translation, but this Medea is as faithful as Jason is not. Like many classical texts, Medea repeats itself constantly, telling us what will happen, reminding us that it told us, then telling us again what just happened. Ancient audiences, apparently, got up for wine and olives a lot and missed chunks of story because these plays are repetitive in a way no modern, television-addled audience tolerates easily. As with Shakespeare, the performance script could stand some trims to help us stay engaged.

The strongest innovation here (although it is, in fact, an ancient convention) is the broad use of a singing chorus, the “Women of Corinth” (played by Amy Groen, CJ Namenye, and Stacy Lynn Schram), who serve as the voice of the community. Next to Medea herself, the chorus is effectively the co-star of this production, bookending all the dialogue and challenging Medea. Because the chorus women are not individual “characters,” I found it somewhat draining to hear them intoning and reiterating information throughout. There is no subtext in Medea — everything is rearticulated to the point of exhaustion — and, as an audience member, I hungered for a bit of mystery and ritual and, honestly, less talking.

Todd Lewis’s extensive, cinematic original score offered much-needed atmosphere and tonal underscoring, and the chorus sang to his music quite capably and hauntingly. The melodies were lackluster — even Sweeney Todd made murder hooky — but I don’t think they were going for “songs” exactly, more like chant, and the harmonies were moving.

As Medea, Sherryl Despres must carry the heavy burden of the show. Save for a long opening monologue by her slave, Medea is off-stage for a handful of minutes. The role is exceptionally challenging, and her performance was appropriately bitter and wounded, by turns helpless and scheming, if a bit brittle. The role seems to ask for a hysterical, almost supernatural disintegration of personality, and I forgive the actress for pulling back from total implosion. Scott Wright, who narrates the horror of seeing father and daughter burn and melt into each other, provided riveting, all-too-short moments on stage. He’s got an unbeatable monologue and it held me captive. Michael Dodge, playing Medea's husband Jason, has the most dated role in the show. His line, something like “One expects a wife to get mad when husbands smuggle in other marriages," got the biggest laugh of the night, though out of context right now, I can’t truly understand why. I think we were just desperate for some levity, something spontaneous and not pre-ordained to happen, and fleeting irony fit the bill. Dodge brings a necessary gravity to the role, as did the the boomy, self-important Kreon (Christopher Weaver) who also held the stage well.

Personally, the big challenge with Medea is that practically all of the events of the play — the deaths, the murders, the affairs, the scheming — take place off-stage. You will not see the tiara at work. In fact, most the play is people standing in drapey, mustard and brown costumes that seemed to blend too well into the beige flat sets. Aristotle, in his Poetics, talks about the central principles of drama: plot, character, theme, song, and spectacle. I caught Fiona Shaw as Medea in the Irish Abby Theatre’s production in 2002, and it was blazing and horrific. For the moment Medea when murders her children, she escorted them behind the frosted glass walls of her compound. Then, as she began screaming, their blood splashed against the glass. The image has remained with me for years. This Medea’s most vivid image, when it rose above speechifying and spectacle took over, was its last: the backlit scorned wife, with bloody hands, watching from a perch above her husband and laughing.

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