I always think I have a handle on my thoughts about Medea.
I mean, I’m supposed to be a content-expert on this play. I’ve read it a bunch, I’ve seen it, my degree is in classical civ and I still work in the field —or at least tangentially “in the field” as I talk to a lot of classicists. I’ve written about it on this blog in 2012 (see Medea and Catharsis) after seeing Actors’ Shakespeare Project put on the play. I’m supposed to have opinions that are clear, well thought out, and supported with textual evidence. I’ve thought about the play and about Medea a lot — the pressures on women, on foreigners, on mothers in ancient Corinth and Athens; the magic she wields which is unlike most other forms of magic (and that Madeline Miller’s Circe delves into beautifully); and about the vast unfairness of Jason’s behavior and of whether her response is justifiable.
Flat Earth’s Not Medea turned me inside out.
Without spoilers, Not Medea directly deals with motherhood and the guilt, despair, and joy that it brings. It also cuts to the heart of what happens when it goes wrong.
This production of Not Medea navigates the metatheatrical aspect of the play expertly. The play starts with Juliet Bowler, “The Woman,” arriving from her job as a pediatric oncology nurse to a production of Medea late and looking for her seat. Bowler is so powerful and consistent as she switches in and out of audience interaction and “playing” Medea in this play-within-a-play. The other two actors, Jason (Gene Dante) and a Chorus member (Cassandra Meyer) jump in and out of the action but Bowler is on the stage at all times.
Bowler’s costume as a nurse arriving from work in scrubs transforms over the course of the play into a simple tunic-like shirt with leggings and an elaborate scaled belt. The nurse outfit brought me into the play immediately, from the Sketchers memory-foam shoes that my mom wears for her medical-step down shifts to the holographic stickers all over her hospital ID badge and phone. Costume designer Elizabeth Krah did everything perfectly. (I do know her personally, but my praise would be the same if I didn’t.)
As in the ancient play, the Chorus is a witness to both the rationale and the aftermath. Meyer was IN IT for every moment she was on stage. You see her shift as the play goes on from Actor in this Play to genuine witness, questioning The Woman about her actions and empathizing with her before abruptly snapping back into Actor Mode and trying to be the Chorus she is supposed to be.
Dante’s Jason is an asshole. This is superbly acted as a role that is inherently bad. (You’re not going to get much sympathy for Jason from me.)
Bowler keeps receiving calls from her daughter at home during the course of the show, asking when she’ll get home and other questions that are revealed over the course of the play. Bowler transmits perfect parental frustration, exasperation, and care as she tries to coax her daughter to sleep over the phone. The continued interruptions fray her nerves. I understood this deeply. While I’m not a parent, my 25-year old younger brother has autism and calls my parents and I constantly, sometimes 10+ ignored calls in a row. I have our family group text muted so that I can get work done. My heart hurts when I think about this but I don’t know what else to do.
I understand Medea in the scholarly sense. I know the consequences if she goes along quietly with Jason’s plan to marry this new woman. Her children die anyway. If she leaves in exile, they die anyway. If she kills them, they die anyway. I know that there are no good options. I know how the play ends.
Watching Bowler/Medea destabilize and realize what she feels she must do over the course of the play was gut-wrenching. At one point during a Medea monologue, Bowler broke out and locked eyes with me. “You look stressed,” she said, smiling (AND I WAS). “Here,” she said, walking out into the audience and handing me a few dollars, “Go get us a drink. Something strong.” The production plays with the audience from the beginning, so I expected this to happen at some point (I was dead center). I took the dollars from her and she yanked me forward, locking eyes with me. I don’t know what she saw, but I saw the defiance of a woman who has regrets but can’t apologize any more than she already has. I was mired in a complex series of emotions that I can’t entirely explain, and this moment was both perfect for the play and deeply upsetting.
(Juliet found me after the show at the opening-night reception and checked in.)
A few years ago, I saw a play called “An Iliad” twice. The Poet begins the play by saying, ruefully, “Every time I sing this song, I hope it’s the last time.”
The show was excellent in all regards. I don’t think I could see it again.
A somewhat self-promotional coda: two BU Classics faculty, Stephanie Nelson and Patricia Johnson, will be giving a talk-back after the 2pm matinee show on Sunday, March 24. I’m going to try to sneak back for that.