SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 16, 2016 – In our introductory article to this review series, we noted that every year since the space came into use, Studio 112— located in Shepherd University’s still-growing arts complex—has been home to some of the strangest and most interesting productions in the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).
Summer 2016 has proven to be no exception to this rule. Studio 112’s small but easily configurable space is home this season to the National New Play Network’s (NNPN’s) rolling world premiere of Allison Gregory’s “Not Medea,” which will also be debuted at Sacramento’s B St. Theatre as well as the Perseverance Theatre of Juneau, Alaska, the remote but well-regarded venue where current Arena Stage artistic director Molly Smith first gained national notice.
Gregory’s new play is a strange and deeply challenging riff on the mythical but archetypal figure of Medea as portrayed in Euripides’ controversial ancient Greek tragedy. In that play, tracking ancient myth, Medea is a wife and mother who notoriously slaughters her children to gain her revenge on husband Jason (of Golden Fleece fame). He cavalierly deserts her for another king’s daughter who just happens to be wealthier and better-connected.
Medea’s situation, alas, is not exactly uncommon in our own times as men still desert their wives for newer, younger models while simultaneously doing as much as possible to leave their “old” families behind. Ex-wives are routinely left holding the bag, often without the funds and support to carry on. (Though to be fair, more wives today are playing the same game.)
On the other hand, most abandoned wives today, save for the notorious few, don’t immediately knock off their kids to regain their self-esteem. In “Not Medea,” Allison Gregory has ingeniously conflated the myth of Medea with a feminist-tinged, contemporary equivalent narrative that leaves the question of marital and relational morality and guilt very much up in the air.
Gregory’s roughly 90-minute drama, performed without intermission, begins seemingly out of the blue when a nervous, brittle woman—allegedly a late-arriving theater patron—barges into the theater space, apologizing for being late and searching for a seat. Dressed in nursing togs, she nervously fusses around, engaging and challenging audience members while still looking for her seat.
It’s apparent in short order that the play has begun, and that this annoying yet oddly sympathetic woman (played by Joey Parsons) is the central player in what soon unfolds as the story of a modern Medea enveloped by the frame tale of the ancient myth. The woman (we never really get her name) once played the character of Medea on stage and, as Gregory’s play unfolds, we learn how her own life and marriage ended up strangely parallel to that of the mythic Greek character.
But, as Cheech Marin once said in a different context, the tragedies of both women are “the same, only different.” As she begins to tell her story, Joey Parson’s complicated character time travels back and forth as she morphs into the “ancient Medea” she once portrayed, then back again as a “modern Medea” a woman of our own times who, allegedly by accident, ends up in an ambiguous life situation under the same scenario.
From the start, it’s fairly obvious to avid theater-goers that “Not Medea” started out as a one-woman play. In the program notes, the playwright acknowledges this, but also notes that as she developed the play, two additional characters intruded on the intended dramatic monologue: Jason (Ben Chase) and a somewhat naïve and also unnamed young woman (Rachael Balcanoff) who takes on the role of the traditional Greek Chorus.
It was a lucky break that these characters materialized in the creation process, as Gregory’s final performing script would have sorely-tested the ability of a single actress, no matter how talented, to flesh out the story the way the plot arc required. While “ancient Medea’s” revenge is as simple, final and gruesome as it can be, “modern Medea’s” not-quite-parallel situation is confused.
As we eventually discover, the post-divorce death of one of “modern Medea’s” children could have been murder. But it also could have been due to neglect or may very well even have been a tragic accident. But, within the context of Gregory’s play, the media, the courts and public opinion rightly or wrongly pin the blame for the outcome on the child’s mother leaving “modern Medea’s” ex-husband essentially blameless for the tragedy.
This, essentially, is the dilemma that Gregory leaves the audience to debate after leaving the theory. Is “modern Medea” entirely innocent of a crime? Is she passively guilty, or actively guilty? And whatever the case, is everything her fault? Is her ex-spouse actively or implicitly guilty as well? Or does his new life with a new wife exist totally outside of “modern Medea’s” personal tragedy?
Since we’re also privy to “ancient Medea’s” chaotic life in this drama’s play-within-a-play, we also begin to ask ourselves, was “ancient Medea” really the irredeemable child murderer we all think she was? Or was she a woman driven insane by Jason’s sudden and callous desertion and thus not responsible for the tragedy that followed?
This is where the character of Jason (both ancient and modern) becomes key to “Not Medea’s” plot and it’s why he intruded on Gregory’s heretofore one-woman drama to begin with.
Tall, hunky Ben Chase is perfectly typecast as Jason in this production. Physically, he’s the kind of heroic male who’d sweep any Greek princess or any modern woman off her feet, which is precisely what happens here.
Yet both the playwright’s lines and Chase’s portrayal of Jason make it readily apparent that when it comes to emotional maturity and intellectual prowess, this Jason is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. He’s a narcissist pure and simple, and in this life, nobody can ever be as important as Jason.
Clearly, Gregory is not about to let this husband-turned-ex-husband off the hook for either the ancient or the contemporary tragedies that occur. Hence this drama’s tilt toward feminism and moral ambiguity. We all know what’s happened here. But whose fault is it really? Or, as Shakespeare’s Cassius says in “Julius Caesar,” “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves…” And if we have any issues with any of this, Rachel Balcanoff’s touchy, fearful Chorus jumps in from time to time, not only to help us out, but to try to steer Medea away from her Final Solution.
It’s good that Gregory’s two additional characters insisted on talking their way into this play. They introduce key elements of personality, ambiguity and morality that turn this play into the kind of “Think Theater” that CATF’s godfather, Ed Herendeen has always hoped to bring to this festival.
While the largely repugnant, two-dimensional Jason pushes this play in the direction of contemporary feminism and female victimhood, Gregory proves she’s an expert dramatist by making both her Medeas highly-strung and bizarre enough to be culpable in and of themselves, including the possibility that their own very “clinginess” could have, in a way, encouraged Jason’s attentions to wander. Relative guilt and innocence are thus a tough call in this play and Gregory wisely leaves the choice up to us.
The acting in “Not Medea” is just great, outstanding, really. Rachael Balcanoff’s Chorus is a brittle, mostly delicate little thing, an excellent character type for the average modern or ancient everyday citizen who, while possessing the kind of common sense that royal heroes and heroines often lack, are afraid to inject their opinions into epic scenarios that might end up devouring them.
Ben Chase portrays Jason somewhat similar to a well-muscled, full-of-himself star college quarterback who glories in his athletic fame while sliding through school with a respectable D-average. A creature of both charm and impulse, there’s not much “there” there, making him the perfect foil for a turbulent pair of Medeas.
As both Medeas, Joey Parsons is clearly the star of this show. She pitches into both passionately crazy wives and mothers with an intensity and fierceness that initially seems over the top. Yet en route, in word, deed and expression, she lets us in on the eminently believable reasons that may explain her character’s direction and fate. Thus, we’re forced to sympathize with her two Medeas whether we want to or not. It’s an intense portrayal and a memorable performance.
Hat tips are also in order for Jesse Dreikosen’s set design and Courtney Sale’s deft direction which rendered the set’s tiny working space into a seemingly much larger world that offered the play’s characters ample space to work out their issues and their passions.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
Details for CATF 2016:
When: All the plays we’re reviewing here are continuing in repertory through the end of this month. As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 opened last weekend and wraps on Sunday, July 31, 2016. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.
Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while single tickets are often available, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article. That’s because those plays that start to develop a buzz (one or more often do) will start selling out fast as the word spreads.
If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.
Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.
If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.