He Had It Coming

Don’t mess with Medea. Having given up her home and betrayed her family for the love of Jason, after marrying him and having children with him, she finds herself tossed aside and threatened with exile when Jason wants an advantageous marriage to a king’s daughter instead. That business about hell having no fury like a woman scorned? Yeah, Medea pretty much exemplifies that. As documented in Euripides’s ancient Greek tragedy that shares her name, her vengeance is legendary, so much so that we’re still watching that play 2,445 years after its premiere.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong with Danielle Doyle and Shani Harris-Bagwell in Medea, Photo by Lance Huntley.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong with Danielle Doyle and Shani Harris-Bagwell in Medea.     Photo by Lance Huntley.

And it still makes for powerful viewing, judging from the production that African-American Shakespeare Company opened last weekend (on International Women’s Day, no less). Director Dawn Monique Williams’s staging is vaguely modern in setting, with bright contemporary costumes by Courtney Flores and oddly cheery-looking storybook manor scenery by Bert van Aalsburg, but there’s nothing modern about the story, in which what passes for laws are merely royal decrees and political alliances. And the emotions it raises are downright primal.

Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is riveting as Medea, keening in despair one moment and seething with fury the next, but easily manipulating others with sly charisma when necessary to set up her revenge. And when plotting unimaginable horrors for those she loves most as part of her bloody revenge, she makes you feel how achingly painful it is for her, that she knows exactly what she’s doing and is resolved to do it anyway.

Cathleen Riddley lends added resonance to the proceedings as the omnipresent Nurse, lamenting Medea’s plight, backing her up and trying to dissuade her from going too far. Most strikingly, whenever Medea swears a mighty oath or prompts someone else to, Riddley’s right there behind her singing wordlessly and making hand symbols. Danielle Doyle and Shani Harris-Bagwell’s goofily gawking neighbors join her in a busybody Greek chorus, occasionally accompanied by Elizabeth Strong as a mild-mannered, sincere tutor to Medea’s two adorable children (Gabriel Reader and Amir Glenn).

Dwight Dean Mahabir does double duty as the stern and imperious King Kreon, who’s refreshingly forthright about the fact that he’s just exiling Medea because he’s terrified of her, and as the jovial visiting king of Athens, an old pal of hers. Khary Moye is grimly amusing in his naked hypocrisy as Jason, a shameless opportunist who claims to be abandoning his wife and kids for their own sake, to better provide for their future.

What everyone remembers about Medea is the bloody conclusion that’s become synonymous with her name, but one thing this production does very effectively—using an eloquent English translation by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish—is put you squarely on Medea’s side even as you know “she will do such things,” as the Nurse repeatedly laments. Part of that is how powerfully Mbele-Mbong embodies Medea’s righteous fury and hurt, but also when see how condescending Jason is in his entitlement, how belittling of her sacrifices, we too want him to hurt. Because however archaic the setting and consequences (or lack thereof) may be, that smarmy routine that Jason’s pulling, that shit is timeless, and woe to us all that it is so. The collateral damage of this marital dispute is really what’s tragic, but this guy deserves whatever he gets—just as he himself thought when everything was going so well.

Through March 30
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theatre
African-American Art & Culture Complex
762 Fulton Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #22 of 2014, attended March 8.

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