orphic productions

Portland theater: victimizing women

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

by MARIA CHOBAN

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.

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Theater for Barbarians

Portland productions of Greek theater classics tell us more about contemporary America than ancient Greece

by MARIA CHOBAN

In the midst of her Medea-like rage, I attempted to calm the beautiful, passionate Greek mother of my teen-aged piano student. “Stella!” I snapped, “I am trying to keep you from killing your son and feeding him to his father for dinner tonight!”

We laughed. But we also acknowledged the unfettered emotional intensity impossible for Greeks to suppress. Family killings in retribution for other family killings (and curses) come alive in Greek mythology and Greek drama because Greeks feel viscerally/violently, and express it to each other cleanly, graphically, without shame. There are no hidden meanings, there is no irony. There are consequences for our unmitigated impulsive behaviors and in Greek theater they play out Quentin Tarantino brutal and David Mamet blunt.

We probably can’t replicate the inside of another time and culture’s heads. That’s okay, because for me, it’s fascinating insight into our own when we try. This season, I’ve seen several Portland adaptations of Greek classics that revealed insights into 20th and 21st century American culture via their contrast with the approaches and emotions of the Greek originators of theater as we know it. And last week, I finally found one that gets closer to the Greeks!

Antigone 2.0

In last fall’s The Antigone Project, Profile Theater gave us five contemporary writers’ skits inspired by Sophocles’s Antigone story.

1. Hang Ten by Karen Hartman — a fun fast opener with lots of energy about surfer girls and guy falling in love. Kind of like early Aaron Sorkin dialogue.

2. Medallion by Tanya Barfield — A mother seeks some sort of remembrance for her dead son’s sacrifice from an angst-ridden Colonel Klink.

3. Antigone Arke by Caridad Svich — Cool rope trick. The concept of setting the story as a virtual experience — watching an actress hologramming Antigone imprisoned, left to die — with a 21st century docent guiding us was fun. Maybe that’s all it had to be. Too long.

4. A Stone’s Throw by Lynn Nottage — Village woman makes the choice to believe in a stranger’s love, overriding her own good sense. He disappears. She’s condemned to die by stoning. Her horrified friend presses her to run away.

5. Red Again by Chiori Miyagawa — Future meets past as the dead Antigone in Hades reads about our world in unfinished books that update continuously while her sister, who chose life over an ideal cause to die for, lives the catastrophes Antigone reads….

Profile Theatre’s ‘The Antigone Project.’

Sophocles’s Antigone, one of his earliest plays, is a ham-fisted Tarantino extravaganza that accelerates to cataclysmic catharsis. It’s a summer blockbuster, perfect for audiences looking for surly, comic-book lines flung back and forth by two-dimensional characters and death. Lots of death. Plot: Antigone tries to convince her uncle Creon, ruler of Thebes, to overlook her killed brother-turned-traitor’s attack on Thebes and to give him a proper burial. Uncle won’t relent so it all ends in tears death.

When I lived in Greece during Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, all hell broke in America over this misuse of power — an older male superior over a younger bimbo. Greece laughed at us, pointing to her own prime minister who on television exited planes with his hand held up to help his young bimbo mistress down the stairs, his American wife left at home. The two cultures could not understand what the other culture saw, felt, reacted to.

Ditto Antigone. Greeks forged a kind of hyper-realistic drama that hinges on capturing character in depth. We’ve been practicing this ability for as long as we’ve gathered with our Greek friends for gossip; greeting the coffee klatch with Pion thavoume simera?”  (“Who are we burying today?) We bury our friends and enemies with insightful malicious character assassination, we psychoanalyze, we spill our guts. And then we write a play about it. (Something we never do is ostracize those we gossip about; they still remain within the family.)

The difference between a gathering of Greek friends in Athens and a gathering of American friends here is the difference between 4Chan and Facebook. Like 4Chan, Greeks will rip you apart if you’re emotionally insincere, articulate-but-stupid, spineless.

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Fertile Ground reviews: Young bloods

Broken Planetarium's 'Atlantis' and Orphic's 'Iphigenia 3.0' show the promise of today's young Portland theater companies

At a Fertile Ground panel discussion called Building a Musical last weekend, Portland theater maven Corey Brunish, who’s produced impressive shows in Oregon and New York and beyond, noted that most Broadway shows are aimed at “well educated women in their 60s.” His observation  will come as no surprise to anyone who’s attended a Broadway show — or most other theater, in New York or elsewhere. Judging by the usual audience demographic, you’d be forgiven for thinking that even Portland theater is for old people. But at two performances at this year’s Fertile Ground festival, I found young companies drawing relatively young audiences in plays that pulsed with 21st century attitude and energy. They left me optimistic for the future of theater in Portland and beyond.

After the Deluge

Set in a not so distant future in which the climate change denied by the Con-mander in Chief has now, ironically, inundated (thanks to melting polar ice) most of his properties, Atlantis takes place atop a New York skyscraper rooftop. By day, its characters watch the waters rise inch by inch, and by night participate in an early ‘60s-style Greenwich Village open mike amateur folk song showcase —providing a perfect excuse for characters to periodically burst into song. Not that operas or musicals (which, despite the subtitle, is really what this is, as it eschews traditional opera’s sung recitatives in favor of a musical’s alternating songs and dialogue) have ever needed one.

Natasha Kotey in ‘Atlantis.’ Photo: Laura Hadden.

Thankfully, the enormously entertaining show, which completed its short Fertile Ground run at Portland’s Clinton Street Theater last weekend, seldom slows to harangue us about politics; the impending flood is just an ominous if inevitable fact of life. So adaptable are these New Yorkers that, evolutionary theory be damned, they grow gills to adapt to their submerged future. It’s one of the cheerfully wacky touches that keep Atlantis’s mood light while never flinching from the gravity of its subject matter. We soon learn that this greatest of our generation’s challenges is also a metaphor for one of its other generational crises, one that unfolds through the story of one of its central characters. That’s a classic application of speculative fiction, yet there’s nothing remotely preachy or political or sentimental about this realization.

In fact, several songs (written by Laura Christina Dunn, Brigit Kelly Young, Kendy Gable, Monica Metzler a/k/a Forest Veil, Frank Mazzetti and Maggie Mascal) could be described as sharp musical comedy, and their sly, smart lyrics are one of the show’s major assets. The audience chortled and even howled through numbers like Dunn’s song about the land of lost dates, and cheered Sofia May-Cuxim’s dynamite belting out of “Hymn to the End of the World.” The other vocal performances could be charitably described as authentically scruffy indie, which suits the story but may occasionally trouble listeners who prioritize accurate pitch, range greater than a few notes, and audible lyrics over dramatic authenticity, although that last problem might be addressed by amplification in the bigger, better funded full production that I dearly hope will follow.

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