So, you know who Medusa is, right? The ancient Greek chick with the snakes for hair and the look that can turn you to stone? Well, yeah, that’s her, but did you know how she got that way? If your answer is no, don’t feel embarrassed, I didn’t either. I guess we both should have paid more attention to mythology week in our English lit class. But never fear, part of a critic’s job is to investigate and fill the rest of you in, so here’s the short version.
Medusa was a virgin serving in Athena’s temple. She was a total hottie, the hottest in the land, apparently. But off-limits to all men. However, Poseidon (god of the sea) decided the rules didn’t apply to him, so he raped her. When Athena found out, rather than punish Poseidon, she instead cursed Medusa for the “crime” of being violated by taking away her beauty (cracked skin and the whole snakes-for-hair deal), removing her ability to interact with others (one look and it's sclerotic statue time) and banishing her to a life of solitude on an uninhabited island.
To put it into modern-day context, Medusa was slut-shamed.
To put it into a modern play, Katharine Sherman has created Dollface, a smart, quirky and at times poetic reimagining of the Medusa myth. One that borrows heavily from the classic tale while also speaking to our present culture of sexual assault and victim-blaming.
“Because you don’t want to be rigid. Because you don’t want to seem frigid. You let your guard down. What could go so wrong?” These are the anodyne thoughts going through young Medusa’s (Arianna Bermudez) beautiful head when a secret admirer invites her to the party of the year on the mainland. She doesn’t really want to go. She’s not terribly interested in the gifts he keeps sending her that wash ashore on her island (a small square dais in the middle of the stage surrounded by craggy rock steps). Flowers, candy, a Victoria’s Secret gift card - they all arrive by sea much to the excitement of Medusa’s sisters Sthenno (Susan Ly almost upstaging the uniformly strong cast with her hilarious Steve Urkel-like performance) and Euryale (Monique Holmes) who are far more boy crazy and impressed by the wooing than Medusa is. “Dude”, the sisters shout, you HAVE to go to the party, he bought you stuff. He invited you!
But this is Medusa as she once was. Sherman, with director Jacey Little’s authoritative finesse, wants to make sure we get the whole picture, so she starts us off as Medusa is now. Living in darkness, alone on her island, hissing snakes in her hair, a cursed woman. It’s only when Perseus (Josh Duga) arrives to slay her (“I came to kill you but…um…I not supposed to hit a girl, right?”) and hesitates that Medusa regales him and us with her tale of assault, shame and excommunication.
A rape may happen between two people, but it takes a community to deal with the fallout. Sherman echoes this notion by populating her play with a female Chorus (Elizabeth Seabolt Esparaza, Regina Ohashi and Callina Situka) to amplify the play’s heightened emotions. They writhe and undulate in shadows creating Medusa’s hissing strands of hair. They spout dated ad slogans as the girls get ready for the party (“You are in a beauty contest every day of your life”). Most disturbingly, they admonish poor Medusa post-rape with language we’re unfortunately all too accustomed to hearing. “We’re not saying you were responsible, exactly, but what were you thinking?” “A pretty thing like you, you know what he wanted to do.” “Slut.” The chilling result is an uncomfortable surround-sound effect of shame and blame.
Just as effective as the Chorus is in evoking our disturbance is Andy McWilliams's sound design. He takes us from party mode, where the girls dance gleefully to Kesha (wink wink for those following the news) and Taylor Swift, to a remarkable acoustic depiction of what it feels like to have something slipped into your drink. Medusa is dancing with her sisters when suddenly the music slows to a nauseating crawl. She begins to lose her balance and tries to remain upright. Music back again to full speed as she attempts to brush off the feeling and dance. Music once again slowed down as she staggers in a kind of alternate-reality state. The party tunes play on as she finally collapses. Without a doubt it's the best and most upsettingly real depiction of being roofied I’ve ever seen onstage.
Little never shows us the actual rape. Or Poseidon, for that matter. And that feels right. It’s not about the act or the assailant. Sherman is writing about the victim and what happens afterwards. We do know that all Medusa remembers is fear and that she froze – a nice metaphor/omen for what’s to become of her. A hauntingly poetic scene chanting a repetitive “the morning that she staggered in” shows off Sherman’s deft ability with evocative dialogue. A judgment scene that gives Medusa no justice highlights Sherman’s ear for modern courtroom victim blaming.
It’s at this juncture that the show pulls off the best merging of the myth with the modern. Photos were taken. Everyone on the mainland has seen what a “slut” Medusa was. Yes, she seemed to have passed out, but so what? She probably asked for it. I don’t want to give too much away here because the effect employed is wonderfully clever and arresting, but let’s just say that you’ll never think of a message in a bottle the same way again. Nor will you question the damaging power of social media to further victimize one who has been raped.
Meanwhile, poor Perseus has spent most of the play muted and tied to a post, watching the flashback scenes take place. He’s learned what happened, how Medusa came to be the monster she is today, and he comes to understand what turned all those other men to stone. (Hint: It’s not what we thought it would be.) Now able to speak again, he must decide, whether to kill Medusa or show mercy. Fight or flight. We hold our breath and watch.
It must be noted that Dollface was commissioned by and written exclusively for Mildred’s Umbrella, a company committed to not only female-centric plays but plays with a surreal and often dark flavor. So you know a Mildred’s show about slut-shaming and the treatment of rape victims isn’t going to be your usual heavy-handed issue play or earnest, teaching-moment kind of story.
And thank goodness for that.
Not because any discussion of this pervasive and pernicious matter is a bad thing. I hope that we talk about this problem in every way possible, as much as possible in an effort to make it finally stop. But I do believe that theater can play a special role in helping to move past the rhetoric, biases and preconceived notions about rape. Theater is a safe place where people gather to watch stories and empathize. And, yes, be entertained.
That’s the beauty of Dollface. By giving us a modern myth that is as enjoyably eccentric as it is thought-provoking (and smartly just one crisp one hour in length), Sherman assures that we really do stop and think about a rape victim’s experience. We personalize and take it in, and don't simply shut off because we’re being force-fed or lectured to.
I think that’s an accomplishment even Medusa could smile about.
Dollface runs through May 14 at Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. For tickets, visit mildredsumbrella.com or call 832-418-0973. $10-$20.