- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 12, 2005

Revenge is a dish best served bold, as proved by a strangely strained and uninvolving production of “Medea” at the Washington Shakespeare Company. This production takes a calculated, psychological approach to the classic Greek tragedy of a wronged woman and instead of passion we get pallid analysis — “Dr. Phil” live from the Parthenon.

Striking elements are in place — designer Giorgos Tsappas’ blood-red stone circle set with a sand pit in the center, dramatic lighting by Ayun Fedorcha, and a stylized approach to movement utilizing birdlike moves and screeches. Vigorous performances are provided by Jenifer Deal as Jason, Medea’s betraying husband; Christopher Henley as one of Medea’s servants; and Alexander Strain as the narrator. Yet, the production ultimately does not grab you, or provide gripping insights into the baser regions of human nature.

Washington Shakespeare’s adaptation is based on Alistair Elliot’s translation that starred Diana Rigg in 1992 and it is a wonder, emphasizing the plainspoken, stark poetry of Euripides’ tale of how rage can overwhelm reason. Directors Jose Carrasquillo and Paul MacWhorter also use other versions and edit the text here and there to streamline the play down to a minimalist 90 minutes.

Mr. Elliot’s elegant translation is a good reason to catch Washington Shakespeare’s production, but may not be enough. The central crisis in the staging is Delia Taylor’s bipolar approach to the character of Medea.

When we first see the character, she is shrieking and keening in a sand pit, lamenting the news that Jason is marrying King Creon’s daughter and Medea is to be banished along with her children. The children are portrayed by puppets, but their sweet, bland smiles suggest department store mannequins and so it is hard to drum up sympathy for the tots.

Sweaty, disheveled, and wide-eyed, Medea is, quite frankly, a mess. Before you can say “Xanax,” Medea has pulled herself together into a tough-minded harpy as calculating as a CEO trying to figure out how to best cheat retirees out of their pensions. However, she does not continue on this hard tack, choosing to dissolve into caterwauling and moaning from time to time, no doubt to suggest that she still has softer, “womanly” feelings. This schizo approach is so abrupt it does not seem grounded in human reality. The normally talented Miss Taylor appears still searching for Medea’s motivations, and so the audience is cast adrift. You also never get a sense of Medea’s considerable supernatural powers and sway with the gods. When Creon (Mr. Henley) tells Medea he is banishing her because he is afraid of her, you realize it is because she is nuttier than a slab of baklava, not because she is a sorceress.

The psychological bent of this “Medea” also results in some regrettable staging, with the cast assuming birds-of-prey postures between scenes and squawking in a manner that recalls the “most annoying sound in the world” scene from the movie “Dumb and Dumber.” Yet, there are bright spots. Miss Deal’s Jason is suave and politic, trying to seduce Medea with a logical explanation why he is abandoning her for another woman. “I’m doing it for us,” he claims, so charmed by his own reasoning you almost believe him.

Mr. Henley has a terrific moment as a servant relating the gruesome deaths of the princess and Creon due to Medea’s sorcery. He is horrified, yet almost salivating with perverse pleasure as he recounts the murders.

Without a strong Medea, the play simply flounders. The character comes off as a woman who kills her kids to get back at her husband — a pathological, cold act — instead of a searing exploration into what forces would propel a woman into the realm of gods who can both give life and take it away.

**

WHAT: “Medea” by Euripides

WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, 601 South Clark St., Arlington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 3.

TICKETS: $22 to $30

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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