Medea & Jason: Rubicon Waltz

Medea & Jason: Rubicon Waltz by The Flower Shop Project

ARGUMENTUM: CAVEATS

(A number of disclaimers: the playwright, Matthew Everett, is also a writer for the Planet. We’ve known each other for several years: he’s reviewed my shows, I’ve reviewed his. I have never seen a full Flower Shop Project before.

This show particularly caught my eye, since I’ve devoted the bulk of my career to the retelling of heroic myth and legend; while my particular passions tend toward the Northern and medieval, I’ve been known to play in the classical sandbox as well.

With that background out of the way: onto the review.)

STROPHE: APOLOGIA

The show is, unsurprisingly, a retelling of the love story of Jason &  Medea (ampersands indicate intimacy!), a pair of ancient Greek heroes. Medea is most famous for being a female character who, powerless and backed into a corner, murders her own children to lash out at her husband — although (as the production both notes and discusses) there are variant traditions.

Structurally, there are several nods to Greek theatre here: the burgeoning love story of the two leads is demonstrated through a series of dialogues; backed up and carried by a five-person chorus, which alternates between stepping forth and playing various ancillary characters, as well as reciting the narrative, broken up between five voices.

(I’ve seen this device several times before — prose dialogue broken up within an ensemble, and tossed back and forth in a way that’s both physically and vocally dynamic — and while I’ve heard a number of different terms used to describe this, the one I was trained with was storytheatre, and that’s the one I’ll be using for the rest of the review, because it’s much more elegant than “prose dialogue broken up within an ensemble and tossed back and forth in a way that’s both physically and vocally dynamic”.)

The dialogue sequences are generally (with many and notable exceptions) dramatic, and the storytheatre sequences are generally (with many and notable exceptions) comic.

CHORUS: FABULA ET THEATRUM

The basic schtick here is a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, with constant metatextual asides to the audience providing a modern perspective about just how silly all of this is.

It’s all very farcical, and a style of comedy in which the laughter emerges not from how hysterically clever each individual joke is — they’re not — but from how constant and quick they are, a general spirit of irreverence undermining the whole ponderous affair.

While many of the individual members of the chorus are quite good, and turn in fairly amusing interpretations of their various roles, the major stumbling block here is that they don’t really work as an ensemble — and the script kind of really, really demands that they do. If you have one sentence broken up between three speakers, there’s a real artfulness to making those phrases seem to emerge from a single thought — an art of, particularly, timing and quickness in the exchange between voices — and audible pauses between performers kills that. Giving us time to think about the one-liners is a pretty sure way to ensure their death. Characters had a tendency to meander into the space, when the script seemed (to me) to be calling for leaping, shouting, rapid-fire movement and delivery. These are not subtle jokes.

DIALOGUE: MEDEA ET JASON

Whereas, I confess, my deeper problem lies with the subtler, more dramatic portion of the play.

I’ve seen many, many modern interpretations and adaptations of the Medea story, and they invariably seem to try to turn her into a kind of feminist heroine. The problem is…

…well, she’s not. That she’s wronged, terribly wronged, is indisputable. That to be so terribly wronged is a rationalization for murder, let alone child murder, is a moral conclusion I simply don’t accept. I find it particularly egregious in a show that goes out of its way to make a running joke out of naming the various unnamed, expendable spear-carriers throughout the story, but we never learn anything about the children. Because the children’s wasted lives are nothing more than a part of Medea’s own self-actualization, and I find that to be really, really troubling.

I dunno — I think I’ve just witnessed too many crumbling marriages in which parents use the children to injure each other, and I can’t shrug it off. And the script seems to really want me to, with Medea cheerfully snarking about her happy ending while Jason sputters in ineffectual fury.

(It’s another, perhaps inevitable, side effect of attempting to redeem a character that history regards as a monster — part of doing so means demonizing the other characters in the story, and Jason here is so thoroughly demonized — cackling, rubbing his hands together over his wife’s downfall — that his actions simply cease to make sense as character choices.)

I view a story in which a woman is so thoroughly abused that she chooses to profoundly damage others as the story of a kind of moral death, not moral triumph. And it’s particularly baffling to me, in looking at a mythology that provides many, many, many genuinely cunning and powerful heroines, that Medea is singled out as representing some kind of zeitgeist.

I don’t think I’m imposing my own agenda here: the script seems, to me, to be working very hard to hitch itself to the idea of Medea as a heroine, and I simply can’t imagine a script that would attempt to do so with the gender roles reversed.

That said, the script is actively bringing up these issues, and that’s pretty freaking admirable.

EPODE: EPILOGUE

It’s a strange conclusion, really — to state that there’s so many elements of the production that I enjoyed, but that the production overall leaves me lukewarm.

But that, I guess, is where I am. It’s full of nice jokes — nice performances — and nice ideas; but ultimately, they come together into something that’s more baffling than cohesive.

I can’t say that my experience was one of unmixed enjoyment. By the same token, I can’t say that the show is one that’s not worth seeing.

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