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Looking beyond the murders in ‘Medea’

Reviving a classic, director and star stress the possible

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

“We trust each other completely,’’ says Jennie Israel, who plays Medea, of working with director David R. Gammons in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Euripides’s tragedy.

CAMBRIDGE - She has the kind of presence that makes her simple cardigan and long skirt look regal, while the baby bump and portable heater make clear that she’s very much a 21st-century kind of leading lady. He looks like a street artist with his cargo pants, flannel shirt, and piercings.

Convening in a cluttered greenroom for an interview, actress Jennie Israel and director David R. Gammons at first appear an unlikely team.

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But they’ve worked hard together to bring their “Medea’’ to the stage. The Actors’ Shakespeare Project production of Euripides’s tragedy, with Gammons directing Israel in the title role and Nigel Gore as Jason, plays the Multicultural Arts Center through March 4.

MEDEA

Multicultural Arts Center, 41 Second St., Cambridge 866-811-4111.

Presenting organizations:
Actors’ Shakespeare Project
Date closing:
March 4
Ticket price:
$33-$50
Company website:
http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org

In the play, dated to 431 B.C., Medea has borne Jason two children only to see him leave her to wed Glauce, the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Creon sends Medea into exile, but she asks for a one-day reprieve, which he grants. She uses the time to take a terrible revenge.

“One of the things we faced working on the play was the profound specter of inevitability,’’ Gammons says, “because everyone just has that one-sentence description of this play: ‘Medea, betrayed by her husband, kills her children.’ It’s hard to face a play that comes freighted with that much expectation.’’

The answer, he says, was to do everything possible to “encourage the notion of possibility, to keep putting aside the idea of where the play would end, and say, ‘In this moment, what is still possible? In their relationship, what can still happen?’ ’’

“She does kill her kids, which is, you know, I can’t really think of anything worse,’’ Israel says. “In addition, though, it’s about extreme betrayal, families, change, and power and where it lies . . . and how are we safe if we don’t have power? And those things are so human.’’

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Israel, five months pregnant with her second child, acknowledges she’s in an unusual situation for an actress playing Medea, but she doesn’t want to focus on that.

“I’m not a Method actor; I don’t believe in messing with myself emotionally in order to get there. I get there through the voice, and the breath, through my imagination and through my relationship with the other people on the stage in the moment,’’ she says.

“It is extreme to imagine killing children while there’s one inside,’’ she acknowledges, but other acting challenges get more of her attention. “I’m dealing with [being] a different shape than I’m used to, [having] a different level of energy. And there’s some very extreme physical stuff in the show that we just are a little more careful about.’’

Gammons, who started out as a visual artist and has often worked as a scenic designer, is known for the striking look of his shows. His “Medea’’ is performed on a set designed by Carlos Aguilar.

The theater at the Multicultural Arts Center is a grand former courtroom, and Gammons is making full use of the balcony that rings the space. But the scenic image ticket holders are likely to remember most is the looming backdrop, the two-story façade of a plain, contemporary clapboard house, which starts out with a crack down the middle and gradually splits apart as Medea takes her revenge.

“It’s not a very complex metaphor that we’re using,’’ Gammons says with a laugh. “But that image of a house splitting apart, cracking in two, was something that really struck me.’’

The production was built with Israel at its center, though, and Gammons calls her a muse.

“We trust each other completely,’’ Israel says.

Both in their early 40s, Gammons and Israel met and became fast friends when they worked together in 2005 on Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “King Lear.’’ He was costume and scenic designer, and she played Goneril. With the company’s “Titus Andronicus,’’ Gammons won the Elliot Norton Award for directing (he’d designed the sets as well), while Israel was vocal and speech coach for the all-male cast. Gammons also directed and designed sets for the company’s 2009 “The Duchess of Malfi,’’ with Israel in the title role.

Around that time, they started talking about “Medea.’’ Gammons was already doing visual research, clipping related images ranging from Pompeii murals to modern sculpture, a regular part of his process.

In this production, the bland, present-day look of the set’s house contrasts with an oval of rocks that evokes ancient rituals. Costumes by Elisabetta Polito and music by Cameron Willard also mix then and now. The point is to make the play touch on both the classical and the contemporary, Gammons says.

“We all collectively wanted to shy away from making it a ripped-from-the-headlines production, because it has so much more to it, obviously,’’ he says. “It’s a play that has survived 2,500 years.’’

When Hitler was host

Another kind of struggle is on view this weekend and next in “Olympics Über Alles,’’ a new play by Samuel J. Bernstein, a Northeastern University drama professor, and Marguerite Krupp at the Kresge Little Theater at MIT, 48 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, through Feb. 19. The play tells the story of two Jewish-American runners who were barred from competing in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, as well as of a present-day Jewish professor and a museum curator trying to understand what happened back then. Eric P. Vitale directs. Tickets are $20 general admission, available from tickets.neu.edu.

Fairy tale moment

Boston Children’s Theatre has added a performance tomorrow at noon to its brief run of the new musical “Calvin’s Monster,’’ which is slated to close after tomorrow’s 2 p.m. show. Information is at 617-424-6634 and www.bostonchildrenstheatre.org.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.

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