Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2007
I have been sad over the past few summers that Berkshire County has been engaging in sustained cultural exchanges with other nations that theatre is the least portable of the arts due to the inevitable language barriers. Fans of the visual arts, music, and dance get to experience the work of all these outstanding foreign solo artists and troupes, and we theatre people get the scraps under the table.
But this summer we have been engaged in NL: A Season of Dutch Arts in the Berkshires. The Netherlands have always been closely connected with the United States and their native language is quite similar in sound and syntax to our own. MASS MoCA brought Ulrike Quade and her troupe for a work-in-progress performance of The Wall in June, and the award winning Dutch theatre company Dood Paard with their version of the Medea legend in August. Both of these performances were artistically challenging and completely accessible to an English speaking audience. I feel considerably less out of the loop this season than I have in previous years.
Dood Paard, whose name translates into English as Dead Horse, is a theatre group from Amsterdam founded in 1993 by Kuno Bakker, Manja Topper, and Oscar van Wensel, all of whom appeared at MASS MoCA, then all recent graduates of the Academy of Dramatic Art in Arnhem. medEia was first performed in 1998 and has been in their repertory ever since, although this is only the second time it has been performed in the United States. Text is always at the heart of Dood Paard’s work, though a major role is also played by music and moving images. The company works as a collective – no one person is the “director” or the “author” – and they have a strong political agenda.
The text of medEia is not an adaptation but a newly composed text, written by van Woensel in close collaboration with Bakker and Topper. The play is written in very simple English, a form of broken English, what Dood Paard calls Euro-English. When I first heard this description I was afraid that I would find the language incomprehensible or, worse still, silly, but neither was the case. There is nothing “broken” about the English used here. If anything, it is cleaner and tighter than what an English-speaking author could have written. The sentences are short, sometimes repetitive, but always to the point.
The company offers the following explanation of this show in their press release for medEia:
"medEia is a contemporary version of the Medea myth and deals about love and its many truths and lies. The text is interlaced with lyrics of American and English pop songs which the company believes are, like Greek mythology, part of our collective memory. They have used as source material the various `lives’ of Medea told through the ages by writers as diverse as Euripides, Pasolini, Seneca, and Müller. The story is told from the perspective of the chorus."
"The chorus is a permanent witness to the dramatic proceedings but unable to intervene in the tragedy. Is this impotence, tragic destiny or unwillingness?" Dood Paard asks us.
All ancient writings contain shadowy stories of powerful women, often much distorted by the time they came to be written down. Many scholars believe that these tales are very, very old, dating back to a time when society was matriarchal rather patriarchal, when women could and did wield great religious and political power. Medea is obviously one of those stories. She is a sorceress, a princess, a witch. But whatever she is, she is used and abused by the alien patriarchal cultures into which she travels for the love of Jason, and that sense of a powerful person unwilling to play by new rules that attempt to render her powerless lie at the heart of her actions. Only by killing Jason’s sons can she regain control and power – otherwise he will always own a part of her. She also kills the young princess with whom he intends to replace her, and the girl’s father, just to prove that she is not to be messed with. Interestingly, Medea does not crumple up and die after committing these heinous acts, legend tells us she lived on for many years encountering more heroes and performing more powerful magic.
I was interested how many local media outlets were unable to distinguish between the name Medea, the word media, and the title of the show, which is spelled medEia. Dood Paard intended the title to be a play on words and as a comment on the different ways stories have been told over time. In the day of the historical Medea (if such an individual person ever lived) the storytelling media was oral, possibly musical. Then the media became written, and then recorded, and now stories can be told in a variety of ways all at once, and this is where Dood Paard fails.
For the bulk of the performance you see van Woensel, Bakker, and Topper lined up against a brilliantly back-lit and well-worn series of paper back-drops. There are four of them, each hauled up like a sail and then torn down at the end of the scene. Four back-drops, four scenes. Each back-drop is a few feet closer to the audience, so as the story intensifies we experience it at closer and closer range, although the story-telling is non-linear so the plot does not build up to the murder of the children, but brings us closer and closer to understanding why Medea did it with each successive scene.
But in between the scenes Bakker trots out a noisy old slide projector and shows crumby old colored slides on the newly hoisted back-drop while a European pop song is played. The slides depict everything from a half-eaten slice of toast with jam to world leaders embracing. They are pointless and are shown much too fast to be anything but mind-numbing. My companion chose to close her eyes and just enjoy the music, but I tried to pay attention to every fleeting image in case they were Trying To Tell Me Something and I wasn’t getting it. We theatre critics frequently suffer from crises of that nature at avant garde performances. Then I started worrying that the lyrics of the four songs were intended to advance the plot, and I wasn’t able to understand them. In the end I concluded that the four multi-media entr’actes were just annoying and distracting, and did not bring any further relevant commentary on the media or Medea.
So this is more tell than show. There are no representational costumes or sets. The play takes place in the theatre, not in Iolcus (Medea’s native land, now located in the nation of Georgia) or Crete or Corinth. van Woensel, Bakker, and Topper appear as themselves, that is to say as actors, in what appear to be modern street clothes (of course any garment worn by an actor on the stage becomes his or her costume for that performance.) They are engaging young actors, attractive, funny, and obviously smart. The story is constructed so that it is told and retold over the course of the four scenes – the dramatic energy builds but the story does not begin at the beginning and end at the ending, which in this case would be Medea’s murder of her two young sons by Jason.
During the play itself I was never bored, although, as I mentioned I was annoyed and distracted during the entr’actes. I found the text to be a fascinating psychological and sociological look at what motivated this woman to commit what has been considered the ultimate crime by many diverse cultures over the ages. I often find Greek tragedy to be just too relentlessly tragic, but Dood Paard did a good job of making Medea and the other characters in the story three-dimensional and human. There was enough humor to leaven the tragedy, which freed me to contemplate the motivations for the characters’ horrible actions, rather than become overwhelmed by the actions themselves.
Now I will spend some time ranting at my fellow audience members. Several people walked out of this performance. That is their right, of course, but I find it unconscionably rude. Here is my advice: Be sure you understand about the performers, the performance, and the venue before buying your ticket. All theatres these days have Web sites, publish publicity materials, and send press releases to other media that make it clear who they are and what they present. Be an educated consumer and spend your time and money at the venue which offers the type of entertainment you enjoy.
But once you have bought your ticket, unless you are seriously being offended, do not walk out during the performance. There was nothing blatantly offensive about the Dood Paard presentation. They said that it was a contemporary theatrical version of the Medea myth and that is exactly what it was. Everyone kept their clothes on, there was only one four letter word, no religious or ethnic groups were maligned, and the senses were not assailed by painful or unpleasant sights, sounds, or smells. Everything was in perfectly understandable English.
The tale of Medea is tragic and painful. All societies from the dawn of time have had a strong taboo about mothers killing their children for the obvious reason that our species would not have survived two decades if that kind of behavior was condoned. Nature has built in fairly strong safeguards against that behavior too, using hormones and brain chemistry to create a strong mother-child bond. So naturally most people find hearing a story about a mother killing her children to be uncomfortable. This gets back to being an informed consumer. The Medea myth has been around for a millennium or two but if you are not familiar with it it is easy enough to find out about it on the Web or at your local library. If you don’t want to hear a story about a mother killing her children, don’t attend a play about Medea, or Susan Smith, or Andrea Yates.
Once you have bought your ticket and are seated in the theatre and the performance has started, the only reasons to walk out are unbearable psychological or physical pain. Here the program clearly stated that the show would run 75 minutes without an intermission. That is not a long time to be polite and watch what these performers have to offer. Whether you like the show or not, the actors on the stage and many other people who you don’t see have worked very hard, have invested time and money and talent, to bring this to you. You owe them the courtesy of remaining in your seat until either the intermission, if there is one, or the end.
And that’s what Gail Sez!
Sorry! No further regional performances of this play are planned. Go to the English language version of the Dood Paard Web site for more information about the artists and their future projects. For information on future programs at MASS MoCA please call 413-662-2111.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007