- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 9, 2002

There have been bad-tempered and dangerous women to spare in the theater, but there are few like Medea.

Intelligent, self-aware, passionate, sexual and magical, Medea is a force of nature a woman willing to look beyond the confines of gender to exact a revenge that would befit a wrathful god.

As played with eagle-eyed intensity by Fiona Shaw, you witness Medea's actions and do not wonder: "How a mother could do that to her children?" Instead, you wonder, how could she not? In this spiky, modern production by Ireland's Abbey Theatre, audaciously directed by Deborah Warner, Medea is not portrayed as a witch on wheels, the ultimate wronged wife who descends into madness in her efforts to make miserable the life of her husband, Jason (Jonathan Cake), after he tosses her aside to marry a young princess. Why shouldn't Medea be angry after all, her magic charms assured Jason's success capturing the Golden Fleece, and this is how he repays her?

Instead, Miss Shaw's Medea is a thinking, feeling woman who paints herself into a corner and decides that she cannot go back, but must move horribly, determinedly forward. In the throes of rage and bitterness, she hatches a plan that will cause Jason the most pain an over-the-top revenge that you would think a mere mortal would not be capable of conceiving.

But Medea thinks big beyond freedom and bliss. Her anger is godlike, divine in its unshakable belief that this is the path to take and divine in its indifference to human law and morality. Medea has made a decision and no one and nothing can stop her.

It would be easy to hate such a woman, but the beauty of this production is how Miss Shaw makes you see both the power and the powerlessness of Medea. You see that her rage is monstrous but that she also possesses the all-too-human qualities of loving her children, being addicted to good lovin' with her husband (Miss Shaw and Mr. Cake exude sexual tension), and getting really ticked off when her happy home life is compromised.

Miss Shaw makes Medea so approachable that you think, under better circumstances say, when she is not a homicidal maniac in a black bikini clutching a butcher knife she is someone you could picture as a friend.

You also can relate to Jason, who is played with playboy bonhomie by Mr. Cake. There is even a bit of sly humor as the handsome Jason (who seems like an ancient Greek version of the popular jock who always gets his way) tries to schmoozily explain to Medea that his marrying a younger woman and forsaking his sons is actually a good thing, not only for him but for the entire family.

The crackling intensity between Medea and Jason works, as does the admittedly cheap shot (but oh so effective) of having adorable little boys onstage playing the sons. What is less effective about this production is having the chorus, here dressed as working class sycophants who hang around Medea as if she were Madonna, having so much interaction with the main characters. Instead of commenting on the action or lamenting, the chorus roams all over the stage and races up and down the stairs like a bunch of grandstanding back-up dancers.

They become so much a part of the physical landscape of the play that when Medea hatches her plan you wonder why nobody in the chorus tries to stop her with one of the concrete blocks littering the stage.

It is baffling to have the chorus suddenly become so passive and pull away from Medea, a woman they obviously have a prurient interest in, when common sense dictates that they would intervene in some way. An effective Greek chorus is usually in the play but removed at the same time. Here, they are a part of the action and then not when it is convenient.

One knows that Greek tragedies are about fate and that inexorable pull toward one's destiny, but you still need to feel something deeper is going on other than everyone stepping aside and letting nature take its course. Otherwise, why bother?


***

WHAT: "Medea"

WHEN: Through Saturday, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Terrace Theatre at the Kennedy Center

TICKETS: $40

PHONE: 202/467-4600

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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