There comes a point in the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Medea’’ when the title character, played by Jennie Israel, stands encircled by rocks, her auburn hair in disarray, mascara streaking her face, and declares to the watchful chorus, to the heavens, and to herself: “I am not like other women. I am of some other kind.’’
On one level, of course, Medea is speaking palpable truth. The measure of revenge she will exact on her unfaithful husband, Jason, shortly after she utters those words is indeed the unthinkable work of “some other kind.’’
But an underlying theme of this generally admirable ASP production is the subtler truth that Medea is very much like “other women’’ in one crucial way: She is subject to the sudden, arbitrary, and unfair changes of circumstance that come of living in a world where men make (and remake) the rules to suit and benefit themselves.
This implicit notion of Medea as universal woman - despite the monstrousness of her deeds - sustains an interesting tension in the well-acted production, directed by the ubiquitous David R. Gammons, who just wrapped up “Red’’ at SpeakEasy Stage Company.
Israel, attired in a long black gown, delivers a harrowing performance that makes clear that when Medea challenges the established order in an act of murder, it is also an act, spiritually speaking, of self-slaughter. Nigel Gore is a worthy adversary as the coldly unyielding, self-serving Jason, who discards Medea for a younger woman of royal blood, then tries to persuade her he did it for the good of their two small sons, and even for her.
When Medea first sees Jason, Israel’s face registers an array of conflicting emotions, from fury to heartbreak to icy resolve. Then, as if subject to a force beyond the control of either of them, the couple fall into a fierce embrace, the first of several indications that for this duo, antagonism is mingled with love, or at least passion.
A different and less salutary tension results from Robin Robertson’s sometimes-clunky translation of Euripides’ tragedy. It is pocked with clichés and a few awkward attempts at vernacular updating; the nurse’s opening narration describes Medea as having fallen “head over heels’’ for Jason, and later, Medea sneers at Jason: “Go. Get out of my sight. I can tell you’re keen to get back to the palace and your hot little playmate.’’
Visually as well as verbally, the contemporary coexists uneasily with the classical at times in this “Medea.’’ When Jason disputes Medea’s account of the services she rendered him (“It was Aphrodite who saved the Argo, Aphrodite alone,’’ he says, and so on), the fact that Gore is in a suit and tie gives him the appearance of a historian delivering a lecture rather than a character bent on self-justification.
Like Gore, much of the cast is in modern dress (the costumes were designed by Elisabetta Polito), though the nurse (Siobhan Brown) and the chorus of Corinthian women (McCaela Donovan, Obehi Janice, and Sarah Newhouse) wear garb suggestive of ancient Greece. In the minutes before “Medea’’ begins, the Corinthian women enact slow, stylized movements on catwalks high above the stage, their demeanor suggesting despair at their inability to prevent what we are about to see and, more broadly, the unstoppable workings of fate.
Gammons makes good use of Carlos Aguilar’s set, with its spare, simple, but potent imagery. A wooden stage is strewn with children’s playthings (a stuffed bunny, a miniature truck, a toy sword and shield) and rocks that will eventually be arranged into the aforementioned circle. Overlooking the stage is the gray clapboard facade of a house that finally splits apart.
It’s clear that Medea’s brainpower and sheer force of will, not just her bloodlust, are what the men in her orbit find threatening. When Creon (Joel Colodner), king of Corinth and father of Jason’s new bride, tells Medea he is banishing her in order to protect his daughter from her, he admits: “I’m afraid of you, to put it bluntly. . . . You are a clever woman.’’
He’s right to fear her. Israel’s Medea freezes the marrow in those scenes where she describes, then proves, what she is capable of to fulfill her need for retribution. But Israel is equally affecting in those moments when Medea seems vulnerable in a way that is both timeless and as 21st-century as the story of John and Elizabeth Edwards.
“This blow, when it came, came from nowhere, knocking me down, crushing my faith in all that’s good and kind,’’ Medea says. “I am lost and foundering. . . . My husband, my companion, the man I thought I knew so well - in whom I’d invested everything - has revealed himself to be the most contemptible of men.’’
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.