ABOUT THE PLAY
How do you solve a problem like Medea? Her infamy is larger than life; it resists the constraints of the stage. There have been other terrifying anti-heroes in the history of tragedy, but a woman capable of killing her own children threatens to break the bounds of imagination. Even Lady Macbeth, a theatrical descendant who imagines dashing out the brains of a nursing infant, can’t steel herself to carry out actual violence, and ultimately subsides into madness and suicide. Medea, though, ends her play not beaten down but darkly triumphant. In the final scene of Euripides’ tragedy, she turns up to taunt her defeated husband from a winged chariot suspended above the stage. By occupying the position reserved for the deus ex machina, Medea reminds us that she’s semi-divine, the granddaughter of the sun god Helios. “There’s a deity’s entity in my identity,” she tells us in this brilliant adaptation. A supernaturally powered fury, she refuses to be reduced to human fragility.
Theatrical productions often try to humanize Medea by presenting her as descending into weakness and insanity after her husband’s abandonment. In Euripides’ version of her story, however, she’s defined less by heartbreak than by steely, strategic vindictiveness. Proud, fierce, and intent on honor, she’s a kind of epic hero whose fight lies in the domestic sphere. Jason has disrespected her by breaking his wedding vows, solemn oaths made before the gods, and her task is to ensure that he’s punished. Quintero gives us a Medea similarly defined by her power and insistence on justice. “There’s no peace for those / Who break oaths with me,” she warns Ageus. Later she tells the Chorus, “Now I see just how this ends / Justice for revenge.” Medea’s plan reflects a careful calculation to maximize Jason’s suffering, rather than a desperate burst of emotional frenzy.
Medea is defined above all by her acute intelligence. As a sorcerer, she’s defined by her skill with poisons and potions, and as an avenger, she deploys her words as drugs. She lulls Jason into complacency by playing the part of a weak, injured woman, flattering his ego while working out the components of her plan. Hip hop, with its rapid-fire swaggering verbal dexterity, offers a thrilling vehicle for this unsettling demigod. Luis Quintero’s incantatory rhymes situate Medea in a new version of Greek tragedy’s ritualized world, neither ancient nor modern but partaking of both. This is not just any domestic tragedy – as the chorus leader reminds us, “There’s Gods in this house.” The play dazzles with verbal pyrotechnics, promising the audience to “keep it clear with rhythm and stichomythia / so you can listen here to the tragedy of Medea.” But at its heart it asks us to examine what we’re doing in the theater, vicariously experiencing someone else’s catastrophe. “For there to be a tragedy somebody has to pay,” the chorus points out. “Who does it cost for us to pay to see a tragedy?” TANYA POLLARD | Professor of English, Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY
TANYA POLLARD is Professor of English at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is Chair of the Council of Scholars at Theatre for a New Audience. Her books include Greek Tragic Women on Shakespearean Stages (2017), Drugs and Theater in Early Modern England (2005), Shakespeare’s Theater (2003), and four co-edited anthologies. She appeared in Shakespeare Uncovered with Ethan Hawke in Macbeth (2013) and with Christopher Plummer in King Lear (2015). Beyond the Red Bull and TFANA, she has spoken with artists and audiences at theaters including the Public, Classic Stage Company, and Roundabout, where she consulted on Kiss Me Kate (2019). A Rhodes Scholar, she has had NEH, Whiting, and Mellon fellowships. Her edition of The Alchemist is forthcoming with Arden Early Modern Drama.