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Oft brilliant, but flawed MEDEA, introduces new professional theatre company

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Mamaí,  Cleveland’s newest professional theatre, opened its summer season with a monumental undertaking, a staging of the U.S. premiere of Brendan Kennelly’s translation and script modification of Euripides’ classic tragedy, MEDEA.

The company’s mission is “to create intelligent, relevant classical theatre that offers an artistic home for Cleveland’s theatre artists, and equal opportunity for women in the professional theatre community.”

MEDEA, considered by many theatre aficionados as one of the greatest plays every written, relates the tale of revenge by Medea, the wife of Jason (of the Argonauts).  Medea, noted as a sorceress, was the daughter of Acetes, king of Colchis, who aided Jason to accomplish his quest for the Golden Fleece.  Medea fell in love with Jason, killed or assisted in killing her brother, and betrayed her father, in order to assist the handsome and manipulative Jason.  They flee to Corinth, where they live for about ten years, rearing two children in relative peace, until Jason, an opportunist, leaves Medea and marries Glauce, the King of Creon’s daughter, with his eye on the throne.

Medea’s reaction is one of a scorned woman.  Jason’s betrayal turns her into a vindictive psychopath intent on getting revenge at all costs.  She writhes in agony, rants with rage, plots destruction, and acts with no conscience.  Asking “Why must a man always be seeking something?” she contends she “will not be a woman civilized by men,” and rages against Jayson’s infidelity and lack loyalty.  The result is fiery death for Glauce and her father, the infanticide of her children, and Jayson losing love, political position, and his heirs.

Euripides leaves the viewer aware that Medea has wreaked her revenge, but, he asks, “At what cost?”

MEDEA holds great importance in my theatrical training.  While attending the University of Michigan I had the astonishing experience of working on a production of the script with Dame Judith Anderson portraying Medea, and Jason Robards, Jr, as Jason.  That script was the traditional translation by poet Robinson Jeffers, who was also on the Wolverine campus to share his views regarding the play.

Though the basic story is the same, Brendan Kennelly’s translation and enhancement makes changes in the plot and its development.   The chorus is mainly fragmented into individual characters (a newscaster, several attorneys, a neighbor and a barista).   The children are girls rather than boys who would have been Jason’s heirs, carrying on his sperm and name.   Medea no longer flees in a dragon-pulled chariot provided by her grandfather, the Sun-God.  Jason does not collapse in defeat as his dreams of power disappear, realizing his wrongs—a component of classical tragedy.

Kennelly and/or the director, Bernadette Clemens, have added modern touches to the traditional aspects of the story.  Present are cell phones, i-pads, lawyers, picket fences, and current language being overlaid over traditional rhyme patterns.  Ancient staging devices, such as speaking directly to the audience, are accompanied by interactive spoken lines.

Mamaí’s production is filled with brilliance and frustrations.

Tracee Patterson’s emotional-breakdown performance is amazing.  She grabs and holds every scene in which she appears.  Her only flaw, which is minor compared to the outstanding level of her acting, is the difficulty in understanding some of her lines.  This was caused by her bending heavily at the waist to illustrate angst, and the director’s pattern of having performers speak to the back wall, cutting off understandable sound.  Yes, Ensemble’s Theatre’s stage, on which the play is being performed, is a small space, but the hard walls and high ceilings causes sound problems even when the actors are facing the audience, but when they don’t, the words get totally lost.

Also strong is Anne McEvoy’s presence as Medea’s lawyer.  Mary Jane Nottage’s opening monologue was well presented, but much too long.  Robert Hawkes was excellent as Creon, but one might question why the role had overtones of comedy in both costume and tone.

In fact, the whole presence of farcical shticks, whether during the scene changes, the song selections, the constant primping by Natalie Green, as the newscaster, or the shenanigans of Jean Cummins as the drunk neighbor, is open to debate.  These actions often upstaged, drew attention away, from important speeches and characters.  Inciting audience laughter during high dramas scenes seemed inappropriate.  Was this done to relieve the angst or was this attempts at humor.  If the latter, why was this done in a tragedy?  Only the director knows.

Jason Kaufman, though displaying the sensual presence of Jason, seemed divorced from performance involvement.  Even in the wrenching scene in which the dead bloodied bodies of his children were brought on stage for his viewing and touching, there appeared to be only surface level reaction.  (Why the bodies were brought out at all is another of those directorial decisions that begs for explanation, especially with the audience only a few feet from their overwhelming presence.)

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT:  MEDEA, a masterpiece example of classical tragedy, is one of the Western world’s greatest plays. It is a daunting undertaking.  Some directorial decisions and story interpretation in this staging seem questionable, but the production is blessed with a brilliant performance by Tracee Patterson.  It’s worth going just to see this amazing actress spin her maniacal magic.

Mamaí’s MEDEA runs through June 30 at the Ensemble Theatre, housed in Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets go to: