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Berkeley celebrates with 'Medea'

The U.S. premiere of a new production of Euripides' classic marks the 100th anniversary of the university's Greek Theatre.

September 26, 2003|Michael J. Ybarra | Special to The Times

BERKELEY — A man walks out between the Doric columns on the stage of the Greek Theatre here with a familiar modern dilemma. Dressed in a white wedding suit, he descends the steps toward a pool, where he looks pensively into the water and broods in silence.

Jason has just dumped his wife for a new bride. His ex-wife, who has sacrificed a lot to help him become a success, gets their two kids, but Jason seems worried that the scorned woman won't go away quietly. Her name is Medea. The water is about to run red.

In Greek, her name evokes the verb medesthai (to devise), and what Medea plans for Jason has been shocking audiences for more than 2,000 years.

Euripides' "Medea" premiered in the Theater of Dionysus in Athens in 431 BC; last weekend the National Theatre of Greece gave the U.S. premiere of its gripping new production of the seminal drama at the Greek Theatre at UC Berkeley, which styles itself the Athens of the West. The two performances, the only ones scheduled in the U.S., celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Greek Theatre.

Performed in Greek (with supertitles) and featuring a singing chorus and live music, the National Theatre's Medea rang with the thunder and spectacle of opera but still managed to convey the intensely personal pain of a woman's desperate rage and all-consuming passion.

And because no celebration -- at least at a university -- is complete without a symposium, there was a requisite panel of scholars and actors the day before the premiere.

"Theater is the most alive art because only theater exists in the same time and place as the audience," said Tamilla Koulieva, who plays Medea. "Even if it's Euripides, it's being done in the here and now."

Koulieva, like Medea, is not Greek. Medea was a princess from "the back of the beyond," which is to say the region east of the Black Sea, today called Georgia. She fell in love with Jason, betrayed her country and family and ran away with the Greek adventurer, who took her back to Corinth in Peloponnesus. Koulieva was born in Russia and has lived and worked in Greece for more than a decade, although she still speaks the language with an accent, just as Medea would have.

Alone and friendless in a strange country, Medea refuses to be ignored: She murders Jason's new bride (and the bride's father, the king), kills her own children and then flees to Athens.

While Medea's disaster is bespangled with gods and kings and one of the more unlikely escape scenes ever written, her suffering and the agony that she in turn causes are as universal as a scream.

"There was a time when Greek tragedy was not something in a museum but a thing of life," director Stathis Livanthinos told the audience before Sunday's performance. "The Greeks used the ancient legends to speak about their daily lives."

In an interview, Livanthinos, who directs the National Theatre's experimental stage, said he wanted to envision the tragedy from the perspective of Jason, often maligned as a man who can't keep his tunic closed and dumps his long-suffering wife for the first trophy princess that comes his way.

"For me Jason is a person whose feelings are not often exposed," he said.

The National Theatre was founded in 1900 to revive the Greek classics. Although Western theater began with the Greeks, the ancient plays disappeared from stage for centuries while Greece was under foreign domination. When the newly independent country began exploring its heritage in the 19th century, the first version of Euripides performed came from a French production.

Updating the plays has proved contentious. In 1903 a performance of "The Oresteia" in vernacular Greek instead of the classical idiom enraged students, who ran riot on the streets of Athens in protest. People were killed.

In America around the same time, University of California President Benjamin Ide Wheeler asked for suggestions on how to develop the school's new campus. The head of the Greek department suggested building a Greek theater. Wheeler had lived in Greece and liked the idea. San Francisco Examiner publisher William Randolph Hearst kicked in $42,000 for the project.

Using the famous Greek theater at Epidaurus as a model, architect John Galen Howard carved out a space in a eucalyptus grove in the foothills on the eastern edge of campus. Although budget constraints forced Howard to use concrete instead of marble, his design was still grand: a stage stretches 122 feet wide with a monumental backdrop of five portals flanked by Doric columns more than 40 feet tall.

The first play performed was Aristophanes' "The Birds" in 1903. Since then the stage has featured everything from Vietnamese water puppets to the Grateful Dead. Not to mention a bonfire every November before the Stanford game.

Performing in an amphitheater is challenging but rewarding, Livanthinos said.

"It's astonishing to act in the open," he said. "The Berkeley Greek is a nice theater, but it's a contemporary theater. In Epidaurus it's huge, but the human being at the center is very powerful. There's something magical there. You can't explain it."

One thing that hasn't changed in more than two millenniums is that the hard seats are still uncomfortable.

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