Portland theater: victimizing women

Well intentioned adaptations of Greek theater classics undermine the originals’ dramatic power


Once upon a time, a spoiled sorceress, the apple of her father’s eye, fell in lust with an equally self-absorbed foreigner. The beautiful brat paid no attention to her father — the king’s — warnings. The foreigner, on a quest to steal treasure from their kingdom, seduced her with the cunning of a Greek. The barbarian sorceress cast magic spells on the dragon guarding the treasure, allowing the cad to steal the Golden Fleece and flee. The besotted sorceress joined him, securing their escape by murdering her own brother. She sprinkled his fingers and toes into the ocean, slowing the pursuers to pick up the pieces to bury.

Fast forward ten years and two kids later. Now no longer a princess but a mistrusted stranger in a Greek land, Medea thinks Jason will worship her just as her father did. But the middle-aged status seeker, tired of the “skila’s” (bitch’s) shrill tirades, pulls off one more cunning trick. He convinces the king of Corinth to allow him to marry his beautiful young daughter. 

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. Photo: John Rudoff/Polaris Images.

My Greek grandmother pauses. Kerchief tied around her head, kitchen apron, thick black grandma shoes. Ankle-less squat feet. We’re sitting on the back stairs of her house, her black olive eyes as crazy as Medea’s. She tortures me with anticipation.

That’s the Medea telling her story in my Greek grandmother’s crazy eyes. That’s the Medea Euripides brought to the playgoers in 431 b.c.

That’s the Medea you read about in the news, like Diane Downs who shot her own kids.

We hate her, we fear her, but we reverberate because she’s buried in each of us.

The Medea we got in Imago Theater’s recent production of Medea is NOT that frenzied vibrant living Greek murderess. Imago gave us static lines that thudded through the continual andante pace. I knew we were off to a bad start when the Nurse trudged in ritualistically. Euripides starts the play like a gunshot. The nurse in a tizzy, wringing her hands, worries that her mistress will do something really really awful SOON! Greeks don’t trudge. We wring our hands, fret and talk fast!

This Medea isn’t the only example of modern productions and adaptations sapping the originals’ artistic vitality in a misguided attempt to bring a modern feminist angle to ancient classics. Last year, Shaking the Tree Theatre used Edna O’Brien’s adaptation of Euripides’s Iphigenia at Aulis, which turns Iphigenia into a sacrificial victim by deleting lines where she admonishes her mother to suck it up, and that show Iphigenia as headstrong an outlier as is her father, Agamemnon.

I haven’t seen it, but I’m worried about what I’ve heard of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Medea adaptation (Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, continuing in the Angus Bowmer Theatre in Ashland through July 6) with playwright Luis Alfaro’s script telling an immigrant’s story.

Heightened Horror

When Euripides premiered his new play Medea in 431 b.c., we Greeks knew her backstory. We’ve spun some version of it to each other, our children and grandchildren since before Hesiod formalized his version around 700 b.c. We still spin it to each other. We’re not just drawn to her sociopathic cunning, like her willingness to butcher her own brother, we’re also drawn to the horror fantasy of Medea’s black magic. How about that golden robe Medea gifts to the Corinthian princess? It melts her skin right down to her white bones in front of the guests at her red wedding to Jason.

Medea kills her son, to avenge Jason’s infidelity. Red-figured amphora from Campagna, 340-320 BCE .

Horror Fantasy flourishes among the repressed and disenfranchised, like the outsider/ immigrant Medea. Check out the Medea-Mistresses of the popular Japanese horror films like Asami, Kayako and Samara. But in Medea, while Greeks were prepared for Tarantino violence and Japanese horror, what we weren’t prepared for was the Tarantino twist: Are Jules and Vincent really going to massacre a roomful of college kids in Pulp Fiction?

In fact, Euripides heightened the horror of the ancient tale, adding the clinching child-killing ending, shocking the audience at the festival in Dionysia. It knocked Euripides out of prize-winning contention and into last place. However, so powerful was his altered ending that we got over our moral misapprehension and appended it forever after.

Greek characters in Greek stories are like Platon’s stripped down, close-up, over-saturated portraits of human nature.

Platon’s Putin

Medea is a self-absorbed wild-child who talks before she thinks. Her quick wit and paranoia give her abilities to see the worst in people and call them on their bullshit to their faces.

She is also an immigrant in a land whose denizens love the novelty of strangers (xenophilia — a national Greek trait) yet put themselves above them out of fear and an honest superiority complex.

She is also a woman.


When [Medea] first arrived here, the local folk loved her. They saw in her a perfect wife for Jason. Perfect in every way. She never argued with Jason. Always compromising, always accommodating –and that, you see, is how a woman earns her security: never argue with your husband!

But that was then.

Now, well, now there’s nothing but arguing, nothing but hatred, nothing but poison, nothing but –

(Medea, translation George Theodoridis)

And she’s a dangerous cunt who never grew up. Never took responsibility for her own brash actions.

Which landed her in this mess.

The hell of it is, she gets off. The deus ex machina in this play abets her as she taunts Jason one last time (not allowing him to bury his own sons whose young throats she just slit), picks up the reins to her dragon chariot, waves bye-bye and froths: “See Ya Later, SUCKERRRRRRRRR!!!!”

Noble Failures

Too many American productions of Greek theater treat characters like Medea not as real, dangerous, dimensional sociopaths, but as noble or ignoble archetypes. It makes for dull theater. Often the problem starts with stiff, formal, bad translations (like William Arrowsmith’s) that shove directors into stiff, formal characterizations. Surprisingly, that wasn’t actually the problem at Imago. Ben Power’s adapted script updates the language of dialogue believably. It changes the ending, though. And not in a memorable Euripides kind of way.

Instead of giving Jason the finger and escaping to Athens, Power/Imago turns the ending into a somber Greek chorus with Jason and Medea intoning unmemorable drivel about something politically correct, I’m sure. I don’t remember. Americans are obsessed with turning females into victims in the name of feminism. By choosing to use Power’s adapted script, Imago chose to portray Medea as mostly a victim.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s ‘Medea’ adaptation with VIVIS, Sabina Zuniga Varela, Nancy Rodriguez. Photo by Jenny Graham.

It seems a fashionable trend in current adaptations whether Greek drama or Craig Lucas’s adaptation of Miss Julie (extended through June 10 at Shaking the Tree) to delete crucial lines in order to dilute a character in order to make a political point. When Lucas deletes the rollicking townspeople’s song we are left with a character (Jean, the coachman) whose motives and character now become questionable instead of nefariously conniving. Lucas’s thesis screams liberal wimp where Strindberg’s original is The Hateful 8 minus 5.

These are only a few of too many cases where adapters take classics, distort the original message to comport with contemporary political ideals, and in so doing destroy the drama and believability because now the action of the play doesn’t match the character. We have to believe Medea is really cruel enough to kill her kids, or that Iphigenia is really willing to sacrifice her life for the play to move us emotionally. But those actions no longer make sense in these modernized adaptations. Character is action, and by changing the character through adaptation or even production, the action no longer matches. This is why we’re not moved by these modern productions.

Write your own damn play!!!

In Ashland, another adaptation of Medea is running at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival through July 6. Playwright Luis Alfaro’s Mojada: Medea in Los Angeles explores the immigrant aspect of Euripides’s tragedy, displacing the lead characters from Mexico to America. That sounds promising, as Medea’s outsiderness, so important to the Greeks then and to Americans now, is often undervalued in modern productions. But the emphasis on a political point rather than a fully dimensioned if crazy-flawed character triggered my smeller. I haven’t seen it yet, so of course I can’t assess it. I stalked the production and found some youtube footage.

Beth Thompson as the effortlessly cold and sexy dominatrix, Red Death, in Shaking the Tree’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe stories.

In Euripides, when Medea confronts Creon, whose daughter marries Jason, Medea physically jabs him, threatens him despite her zero status. She does not, as in this clip, throw herself at the boss’s feet, wail that she’s nothing but a dog and beg for a reverse decision.

My own damn fantasy Medea puts Portland’s Beth Thompson in the role of the sadistic narcissist, using George Theordoridis’s excellent translation with Orphic Theater producing.

They might give us a Medea as good — as bad — as my Greek grandmother gave me.

Portland pianist Maria Choban is ArtsWatch’s Oregon ArtsBitch. A different version of this story originally appeared on her blog CatScratch.

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