Edge Theater Company took a big risk in mounting Euripides’s Medea as the first show in what it’s calling “the year of the woman.” After all, how many Denverites want to spend an evening pondering a straight-up Greek tragedy? But utilizing the clear, literate, modern-without-being-obtrusive translation of poet Alistair Elliot, artistic director Rick Yaconis and director Warren Sherrill have created something rare: a must-see production that challenges and perplexes, shows how relevant great art remains through the centuries (Medea was first shown in 431 BCE), and creates an exhilarating roar in the viewer’s head.
The action takes place on one evocative set by Justin Lane, a kind of place of the mind. Here Medea plots, grieves and rages. A princess of Colchis, she helped Jason in his mythic search for the golden fleece, symbol of power and kingship, standing by him through many vicissitudes, casting spells and committing the occasional murder — including the dismemberment of her own brother — on Jason’s behalf, and bearing him two sons. As the play opens, they are in Corinth, where Jason has left her for a Corinthian princess and she is entertaining thoughts of revenge. In a passionate scene, Jason explains that he is marrying the princess to secure her and the children’s well-being as well as his own; Medea responds with angry contempt. The king, Creon, having learned of her threats against him and his daughter, orders her into exile, but when she pleads sweetly and apparently reasonably for a single day’s delay, he grants it. That day is all the time Medea needs to inveigle the childless Aegeus of Athens into promising her shelter once she’s had her revenge, arrange the murder of the princess and Creon himself, and butcher her own children.
The rhythms of this production are exquisite: Time often seems to stand still, yet the action flows forward swiftly and inexorably. Sound designer Jason Ducat uses music — choral chants, muffled drumbeats — brilliantly to underline meaning, create menace and quicken the breath; the lighting is evocative and the costumes well designed. It’s nice to see C. Kelly Leo bringing an anguished sincerity to the role of the Nurse after a too-long absence from the stage. The three women of the Chorus could easily have become undifferentiated wallpaper, but Maggy Stacy, Lauren Bahlman and Kelly Uhlenhopp take on distinct and interesting personalities. Each, you suspect, has her own backstory, even if you never discover it — a loved child, a husband faithful or otherwise, a wistful solitary existence. Drew Hirschboeck has one speech — as the Messenger who describes the princess’s death — and he makes it quietly and horribly unforgettable.
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Many people define this as a feminist play, and it does have feminist elements: Medea, who gave up everything for her husband, is betrayed and left trapped in an alien and patriarchal society. But to call her a strong woman tortures the definition of the word “strong.” Maybe it would be understandable — if not forgivable — for Medea to kill the faithless Jason, but her murderous violence destroys innocents. Then there’s her dishonesty, her constantly shifting rationalizations, her plans for safe harbor in Athens, the womanly wheedling by which she gets what she wants.
Of course, everything hinges on Karen Slack, who plays the role, and her Medea is large enough to allow for all interpretations. She’s alternately achingly human and vulnerable, and profoundly evil. There are few actors in the area with the power to fully embody a role as large as this, but Slack’s power often feels almost boundless. Sometimes her Medea is almost pleasant, even mildly funny, but periodically a huge rage rises within her, possessing mind and body and consuming those around her. She’s filled with sorrow for the children she feels compelled to kill, but she’s still the same woman who coolly planned her escape. When Medea stands on a platform above Jason with the children’s corpses at her feet, her hands gloved in crimson blood, and he laments having brought a barbarian into a civilized place, you note the essential racism — but at the same time you fully accept the description. In that terrible moment, Slack is a barbarian, a witch, a barely human creature.
Medea, presented by Edge Theater Company through February 14, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.