Laughs Take The Urgency But Maybe Not The Agency Out of Medea

Callina Anderson and Lindsay Ehrhardt in Medea
Callina Anderson and Lindsay Ehrhardt in Medea Photo by Pin Lim
It should have worked better.

Classical Theatre’s season opener, Medea, has all the talent, tools and twists to make Euripides’ classical play something remarkable. There’s the crisp 95-minute runtime, a feminist lens, dilution of the overwrought, modern flourishes, comic relief and one of Houston’s best actresses in the titular role. Hell, it even has cute puppets.

Yet none of these things, or more likely all these things together don’t quite add up to a particularly satisfying portrayal of one of the most iconic domestic revenge stories ever. A story about an OG female rebel.

Medea (Callina Anderson) was once a princess, but she gave it all up, betraying her country and family to help her husband, Jason (Gabriel Regojo), succeed.

Now, in a new land, Jason tosses aside her and their two boys for a new marriage into the royal family, securing his safety and power while leaving Medea to stew in her abandoned wrath. Fearing what Medea may do (she killed her brother for her husband after all), Jason’s father-in-law, Creon (Alan Kim), banishes Medea from the country.

Here is where the meat of the play begins. With Medea learning of her exile.

The modern flourishes are the first indication that this isn’t your standard Medea production. Taking on the role of Chorus as a party of one, Lindsay Ehrhardt, dressed in a short-sleeve baby doll dress version of Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt over white leggings (an odd costume choice from Leah Smith) bears witness.

As Medea rails against her husband's wrongdoings, Chorus pulls out her cell phone to record the rant, not once, but several times during the show. It’s all viral-worthy material and the tech move does make us laugh. But what era are we in? Medea has no car or train by which to flee. There are no guns to exact revenge. Or drones to allow Medea to witness her poisoning of Jason’s wife. So, the potential TikTok fodder capture feels weirdly time-traveled rather than organic. Mostly it feels distracting.

But if we’re to talk diverting, it’s the comedy in the show. There’s no rule saying that Meda can’t be funny. And it’s hard not to love Director John Johnston for trying to insert a couple laughs into this otherwise very bleak/wrenching show (non-spoiler alert – Medea tells us at the top of the show that she plans to kill her two young sons, depicted as sweet blank faced puppets in the show)

The laughs come mostly as eye rolls against chauvinist behavior. Chorus giving Jason the finger behind his back for being an ass, and Medea pretending, with utter derision, that Jason is correct in his belittling of womankind. This works fine enough, we can all snicker righteously at Jason’s infamous misogyny.

But the comedy then falls apart once the more horrific moments land.

As Medea calmly parades her murdered children around the stage (mercifully not the mad woman as most productions portray her – but rather someone who has accurately calculated the demise of her whole world) maybe it’s not the time for laughs.

I hate you, Jason roars, learning of his children’s deaths. “I too hate your irritating voice” deadpans Medea to audience laughter. It’s a funny line, but boy does it suck all the air out of the show's tragedy. A life so ruined that infanticide is the only recourse…never mind, we can laugh at the dumb guy jokes to get us through the uncomfortable parts.

There is one moment in the show that eschews modernity, comedy or lessening of the gruesome nature of the story and it belongs to the Messenger (Marc Alba) who gives a detailed account of the grisly death of Jason’s wife thanks to the poisoning by Medea.

It's a standout performance in the show.
click to enlarge
Callina Anderson and Marc Alba in Medea
Photo by Pin Lim
Unburdened with anachronistic elements or square peg/round hold comedy, Alba makes us feel like we're in the room with the writhing suffering woman as the poison eats away at her flesh. It's a pin-drop performance, unexpected but oh so savored.

And perhaps weirdly eclipsing Anderson's portrayal of Medea.

Not to say that Anderson’s immense talent doesn’t shine through, but it doesn’t sparkle in this role the way it should. Perhaps because Johnston asks her to be too many things. Wronged, funny, vengeful, sarcastic, controlling. But never wrathful. Or at least never full heart-bearing, leave it all on the floor full of anger and hurt.

Without that vulnerable, raw, deep in her core emotion, it’s hard to parse Medea’s murderous actions. Her behavior feels calculated rather than reactionary, which renders her more villain than victim. We are unsure where to plant our empathy.

It’s shocking to say that a mother’s murder of innocent children felt kind of perfunctory on stage, but with too many muddled messages in this show, that’s where things land.

Still, it should be noted that the full house on opening eve was predominately populated by 20 somethings and they seemed more than on board with the production’s mélange.

In a perfect world, it would have been terrific to stick around to hear why the show earned their laughter and applause. Even if it meant feeling old and missing the mark in the process.

Maybe Chorus said it best, the childless are free of troubles. That’s something we can agree on no matter what age we are.

Medea continues through September 16 at The DeLuxe Theater, 3303 Lyons Avenue. For more information, visit $10-$30.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman