In a recent cabaret performance an anonymous diva extraordinaire exclaimed that she wouldn’t go see Medea because there wasn’t any singing or dancing. Ordinarily I would take a lighthearted comment of this kind with a grain of salt and relegate it to the annals of fabulous quips. However, in the case of the current Mirvish/Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Euripides’ outrageous matricidal tragedy, this unnamed chanteuse intuitively shares my view that this thoroughly uneven production possesses elements of the ridiculous and the sublime — for all the wrong reasons.
The set resembles the exterior of Caesar’s Palace (Vegas, not Rome) and the costumes would work better in a version of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Seana McKenna, in the title role, is brilliant. It’s the lap dog posing as a wig that she is forced to wear throughout that overwhelms her clear character choices and makes her physical presence somewhat disconcerting, not to mention slightly hilarious.
Similarly, Scott Wentworth’s layered arrogance as Jason is a fine study in rampant chauvinism, but as one critic has already stated, his Pepé le Pew hairdo is at odds with his frat-night toga. Ultimately it all stumbles along sadly in aesthetic disarray as this unbelievably outlandish spectacle gives classical theatre a very bad name. In jeans and a tight T-shirt Wentworth’s haircut might go over well at Woody’s or an Actor’s Equity barbecue. Unfortunately the director and designer do not seem to quite know where they are and what their characters are doing.
Similar to Des McAnuff’s production of Caesar and Cleopatra at Stratford this past summer, Miles Potter’s direction, combined with set and costume design by Peter Hartwell, is all pomp without any clear sense of circumstance. Jason and Medea are a squabbling couple in the throes of a very messy “divorce.” To have set this eloquent translation by Robinson Jefffers in a more contemporary milieu could have easily solved the problem. Every time McKenna says “Eh” one wonders how the need for topical visual elements could have been more obvious. Which brings us to the extremely problematic chorus. Studded with formidable talents such as Chapelle Jaffe and Claire Julien, these women of Corinth emit high-pitched rhythmic screams that have unwittingly been directed to make them sound like giggling malcontents at a tedious cocktail party. The chorus needed to be separated and integrated into this production of a contemporary translation, as badly as the costumes and sets needed to be entirely reworked, to resemble something other than an assortment of elegantly draped sheets in a bland fashion show. Some choral moments even managed to evoke laughter from an unsuspecting audience.
Nevertheless, despite all of these unsuccessful confections, the ending is extremely powerful and spine tingling. McKenna’s performance comes from an artist at the height of her powers — too bad about the puppy-like wig. Had the overall mise en scène incorporated obvious gestures toward a kind of debauched Las Vegas environment, complete with Rat Pack songs, showgirls and debonair, stylish costuming, Medea could have been a breath of fresh and frightening air rather than a storm of struggling, anomalous styles, rendering it a strange and blighted sight to behold.