Friday, April 17, 2015

Medusa Undone (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Medusa Undone, by Bella Poynton, frankly is the kind of play near and dear to my heart. It enacts a story from Greek mythology, hopefully (successfully in my view) rendering it topical to our own lives. Medusa has popped up in many a work of entertainment, most usually as a relatively straightforward monster--a woman with snakes instead of hair, whose gaze means death by transformation into stone.

But she wasn't always so. Poynton's play deals with how this beautiful sea nymph once a priestess of the goddess Athena became so cursed. The details reveal something we don't often recall about the classic Greeks--namely, their view of the world as dangerous and unfair, plus the ingrained misogyny in their culture  we ourselves carry with us.

The nutshell of the plot tells what happened, but fleshed out to make the characters feel more psychologically accessible. Medusa (Deneen Melody) runs away from her home in sea sea, seeking a life of service to the Goddess of Wisdom (and War) Athena (Karen Wray). She's met by Echo (Carmen Guo), a former Oracle of Delphi, now High Priestess here. Eventually she meets the Goddess, and before too long also meets that lady's uncle Poseidon (Derek Long) God of the Oceans. Medusa is accepted, within two years is elevated to High Priestess, when her sister Stheno (Caitlyn Lowerre) shows up with a letter from Athena telling her to come fetch the girl home. It seems the growing friendship between Medusa and Poseidon upsets her. At a crisis, the Sea God rapes Medusa. The Goddess does not blame him, but the girl, and transforms her into a monster for punishment. The trauma, and lack of comfort from any quarter, transforms the once-naive young woman into a cruel creature as terrible as those who inflicted this upon her.

Of course her ultimate fate--to have her head cut off then given to Athena to place on her shield--cannot but be an extra dollop of vicious irony.

Most of the heavyweight acting in this play falls upon Medusa, Poseidon and Echo. No surprise then they are the three who shine most. In particular all three demonstrate an extraordinary range, each in a fundamentally different way. For example, Melody as the title character is a tiny beautiful girl who comes across as very young, but matures in all kinds of ways (some of them terrible) in the course of two acts.  She in particular listens with great power, and conveys powerful emotion from stillness. No mean feat! Long as Poseidon manages to keep a tricky emotional dynamic going on--genuine charm and blind ruthlessness, sometimes at the same time. He does it also with fairly constant movement and a subtle dignity, even gravitas. One never, ever doubts for one second he has vast powers at his disposal, that here after all stands a King.  Likewise Guo (who sadly doesn't seem to have website) does most of her action in the play by looking at others. Which should have made her last scene, one where she and Medusa do not dare look at one another, less effective. Quite the opposite!

I do feel compelled to point out the play has a very uneven tone. But no play is perfect. These figures from Greek myth wander back and forth between what might called grandness and the most mundane--up to and including contemporary slang! Not that I object to such a thing, but it does require some tricky rhythmic and emotional balances within the text--balances I did not see. Or feel. Or hear.

Some members of the cast have a bad case of wandering feet--lots of tiny steps to nowhere for no clear purpose. The set looks very simple and yet quite effective, with I must say inspired sound and lighting design. The costumes didn't always work for me, but mostly they did so that seems like nitpicking.

Overall, I should also offer some praise to director Sonja Berggren for not only bringing this powerful story to stage with the punch it needs, but along the way solving a real technical problem--since the audience is on two sides of the stage, the blocking needed to be careful and yet smooth. With exception of the wandering feet (which didn't happen that often but is pet peeve of mine as an actor and director) the whole thing flowed nicely in what is after all a small space. Yet it seemed in the end as a corner of a much vaster universe, a cruel one achingly familiar. Because in the end we've all known a Medusa or two. Just as we all grew up around more than a few Poseidons, as well as few Athenas and Sthenos. Echos too now and then. So we get the most vibrant 'message' a play an often hope to convey.

Here you are. Here we all are.

Medusa Undone plays through May 3, 2015 on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays and 2pm at The Garage Theatre 251 East 7th Street, Long Beach, CA 90813. You can make reservations by calling (323) 377-2988.  All photo credits go to Rebecca Taylor.

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