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A 'Medea' for the ages

Actress Fiona Shaw brings modern power to the play at a time when the Greek tragedies appear to be increasingly relevant.

December 17, 2002|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

Medea is a victim who becomes an elemental force of vengeance, a woman who forfeits her humanity for vindictive satisfactions. Writing in a war-torn age, Euripides knew that the world couldn't be neatly divided between the innocent and the guilty and that hidden within unjust suffering is a powder keg of potentially catastrophic consequences ready to explode if not properly redressed.

"What's so fascinating is the way Euripides brings us so close into the interior of Medea's experience," says Warner. "While we can't approve her shocking acts, we understand the journey that brought her there."

There is no better sign of a playwright's continued ability to speak to an audience than revivals of his work. Last month in New York, three hip downtown theaters were showcasing plays by Euripides: "The Phoenician Women" at the Ohio, "Iphigenia in Tauris" at HERE and an adaptation of "The Bacchae" called "Bacchus" at the Metropolitan Playhouse.

Challenging audiences

Produced on shoestring budgets by emerging theater artists, the productions were testaments to the power of a writer unafraid to challenge an audience with story lines that critique as well as entertain.

Whether laying bare the necessity of religious irrationality within our smugly rational society ("Bacchus") or the spiraling havoc of familial revenge ("The Phoenician Women"), the plays probe deeply into the often violent mystery of humanity's inner workings. Even a relatively larkish play like "Iphigenia in Tauris" conjures a poignant fantasy in which the sacrifices of war are, at least for Orestes and his supposedly slain sister Iphigenia, miraculously recovered.

Though revivals of Euripides are more common in smaller venues, Greek drama has a successful track record on Broadway. The Almeida Theatre Company's 1994 "Medea" not only nabbed a Tony for its star but did such solid business during its 12-week run that one of the producers placed an ad in Theater Week thanking Rigg for "making the oldest play on Broadway the hottest ticket in town."

David Leveaux's 1999 Broadway production of Sophocles "Electra," starring Zoe Wanamaker, not only was nominated for multiple Tonys but also was extended for a total run of 116 performances.

Clearly, there's still a hunger for substantive drama. At a time of terror alerts and talk of war, an exclusive diet of insular domestic comedies just isn't satisfying. If the New York fall season is any gauge, reflection may be gaining on mindless laughter as a box-office draw.

Even Al Pacino has caught the Greek bug. He's been working at the Actors Studio in New York with director Estelle Parsons and costar Dianne Wiest on "Oedipus Rex," which he plans to perform in repertory with Oscar Wilde's "Salome" at the Daryl Roth Theater once the current show, "De La Guarda," completes its run.

"We started on this project two years when no one was doing the classics," says Parsons. "Now they're all the rage. But the moment is obviously well suited when you consider what's going on in the world."

More evidence of the trend's timeliness can be found in a critically celebrated production of Sophocles' "Antigone," which was brought to Manhattan's City Center for a brief run in October by the National Theater of Greece. Performed in modern Greek with English supertitles, the play, through its rubble-strewn staging, offered startling images of a civilization morally shattered by civil strife and bloodshed.

The story of a woman sentenced to death for burying the corpse of her political outlaw brother, "Antigone" examines whether public security should ever be allowed to trump private rights. Given such richly talented actors as Lydia Koniordou and Sophoclis Peppas, who played the at-loggerheads Antigone and Creon, there was no need to point out the current pertinence of the conflict.

Like Euripides' "Medea," Sophocles' tragedy contains a wisdom that is untethered to current events. Meaning resides in action and character, not in topicality. So, the undying truth of these plays lends itself to any age with the courage to travel deeper into its own soul. "I would go so far as to say that the Greeks may be our only salvation," says Warner. "Where else can you explore in relative safety our moral and philosophical extremes?"

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