Cullen’s ‘Medea’ combines student talent with veteran direction and set expertise

Strong acting and colorful, creative set design can do nothing but enhance a production. The Williamstheatre’s production of Countee Cullen’s “Medea, Byword for Evil,” proved that well enough in its three performances last weekend.

The stage was awash with color, whether it be the subtle backdrop or the regal outfit of Medea herself. The set design was well-chosen and subtle, but sufficient to convey its purpose. Moods were rendered aptly by the use of lights, which provided the strongest source of color for the set, whether on the screens or about the stage. The sand pit, its warm red coloring softening the stage and drawing the audience in, provided a sense of reality. Clinging to the clothes and shoes of the cast members, it connected the cast to the stage, especially the barefooted women, breathing life into their emotion.

The costumes were beautifully designed, helping to delineate the differences between characters: the cold business suits and sunglasses separated the men from the women, who were dressed in flowing reds and pinks. The warm reds brought about the sense of brimming emotion, rooting the women in the sand and connecting them on a limited level of common understanding.

Yet even among the women, Medea’s elaborate garments elevated the lead to an appropriate status while alienating her from the other women, the only others that she could look to for support. Her isolation was well established; her every movement and every word betrayed her as a foreigner in Creon’s court.

Cast in the role of Medea, Caroline Taylor ’04 carried herself with the poise appropriate to her role. Her smooth voice was well suited for the mercurial transitions between pain, entreaty and heartless calculation. Faced with the difficult task of portraying a woman torn between her need for revenge and the last traces of her humanity, she captured Medea’s uncompromising intensity.

She was well supported by the two nameless women and the Chorus, although it is difficult to tell whether the over-played wailing was due to the players or the playwright. The Chorus was confusing at times, owing to its somewhat compromising position; their empathy for Medea was quickly overtaken by their “sensibilities” and their loyalty to Creon.

In addition, a large portion of the Chorus’s usual role was fulfilled by another member of the cast – and well filled at that. As if born for the part, Abigail Nessen ’05 provided a pillar of stability during the second act. Her voice, powerful and commanding despite the lack of microphone, provided Medea with confirmation of her pain and a modicum of comfort in the trials that her husband had forced upon her.

An echo of the land that she left behind, the Nurse connected Medea to the land and the life she left behind.

However, the men were placed in a difficult position. Not really allowed to develop as characters, they were present largely to serve the plot development around the central Medea. Michael Fluellen ’02 was saddled with the role of the unfortunate and trusting Aegeus – he did well with a character whose sole purpose was to provide a patsy for the manipulative Medea. Creon, played by Pavel Hristov ’04, was stuck in a similar positon. Dressed in slick suit and sunglasses and reminiscent more of a drug lord than a Greek king, he was arguably justified in his treatment of Medea, yet was cast in a negative slant by his similarity in costume to Jason, played with great ambition by Mauricio Najarro ’05.

The character of Jason was another difficult pill to swallow. In the absence of further development in Jason, it was difficult for the audience not to lump all of the men together as heartless, with the exception of Aegeus, who was visually distinguishable only by the color of his clothing.

Little effort was put into developing Jason’s reasons for so suddenly deserting Medea, leaving Najarro slightly lost to fill in the appropriate emotions, which was no small feat. Arguably the most hollow of the characters, his role was by nature difficult to fill, and his surprising and almost too convenient reappearance in the third act and subsequent death left less of an impression on the audience than was probably intended.

Stage and player, however, are not enough to create a satisfying performance. As the final curtain fell, when at last Medea completed the list of fallen characters, there still existed a feeling of incompleteness. As the audience began to lose track of the death toll, and as Medea’s fragile world crumbled for a second time, the initial numbness that might have been inspired was replaced instead with coldness.

Whereas the second act ended with unbearable depravity, the third act was strained throughout. While the second act left the audience with a completeness of an evil dead, an irreversible process in which two people of strong will were inexorably caught, the third act seemed an attempt to milk the emotion, or cathartic lack thereof, by throwing in nearly impossible plot twists that leave the audience at least mildly confused.

Medea’s inability to accept responsibility for her actions leaves out the one true message that was inherent in all Greek tragedy: the truest sense of tragedy is not in the death of the hero, but in the hero’s inevitable fall and his or her subsequent realizations. Medea went to her grave blaming Jason for her troubles, refusing the responsibility of her actions. Coupled with the three bodies lying at Medea’s feet, the final curtain was a rather unsatisfactory conclusion.