Imago Theatre’s stage from its production of No Exit is back in action this season, but not for No Exit. Instead, Imago is producing Medea on the famously high-concept stage, a square platform suspended three feet above the floor, rocking and tilting around its center as the actors move across it.
But where No Exit had tiny prop furniture and a ratcheting thermostat, the stage is the only trick director (and the stage’s inventor) Jerry Mouawad brings to Medea. There is in fact virtually no set dressing at all, and Mouawad and his lighting and costume crew wring from that minimalism an evocative, dusty world.
Medea has been a tough play since its debut in 431 BC, when Euripides came in last in the annual Athenian drama competition at the Dionysia festival. The hero of the play is Medea, an outsider, worshipper of the wrong gods, probable witch, wife of Jason and mother to his two sons. The myth is infamous: Jason ruins Medea’s life by taking a younger, richer, less alien bride (a princess!), and allowing his new father-in-law to exile Medea and her sons; Medea takes her revenge by killing pretty much everybody, including the children she obviously loves.
In the centuries since, Medea has only become more complex, and now, in the context of feminism and globalization, the play is often about agency and action, as an immigrant woman tries to jump the tracks that millennia of patriarchy and a xenophobic near-theocracy have laid out for her. Like Lady Macbeth begging to be “unsexed” in order to commit unspeakable acts, Medea teeters on the precipice of “humanity”—as it is defined by oppressors and dominators.
Unfortunately, this “new version” (neither a “translation” nor an “adaptation”) by English pla wright Ben Power would be a barely passable exploration of its subject were it not for Mouawad’s stage. Power’s language moves with no internal logic between highly formal language obviously used to signify “ancient times” and a kind of lazy, prosaic banality that’s honestly shocking from a deputy artistic director of London’s Royal National Theatre.
Where No Exit plays overtly with influence and weight, the unsettled stage is much subtler in Medea. Most of the characters seem baffled by it, or frightened, stepping onto ground made unfamiliar by Medea’s singular fury. The exceptions are the leads: Todd Van Voris as Jason and Anne Sorce as Medea.
Van Voris purposely manipulates the stage and anyone on it, embodying Jason’s entitled masculinity in all its battering enormity. Opposite him, the much smaller Sorce should bounce around like a ping-pong ball. Yet the most unsettling thing about the production is how settled Medea is. Hair wild, feet bare, with blood on her hands and the ground literally moving beneath her, Sorce stands, almost always stalk-straight, hands at her sides, unmoved by anything around her. This otherworldly stillness relies on a level of body control that puts Medea among Sorce’s most impressive and physical performances. And despite Power’s lackluster lines, Sorce gives Medea a humanity through screams and moans and interior emotional tumult.
By the end of the play, Imago has, through its signature engineering feat and the intensity of its leads, allowed a lackluster script to achieve one possible goal of Medea in the 21st century: It forces the eye to focus on an alien—a deliberate, defiant outsider, for whom the seemingly natural rules of humanity do not apply—and see her as neither hysterical, nor evil, nor chemically imbalanced, nor a helpless product of society, but as the pinion of her own human life finally turning. A small, toothy thing acting on an unsound world.