Medea Mogul

The tragedy of Medea is one of the best-known tales in Western culture, handed down from Greek myth and the ancient play by Euripides. Medea, who betrayed her own family to help the sailor Jason steal the Golden Fleece, married him, and had his children, finds herself thrown aside when Jason has the opportunity for a more advantageous marriage, and gets her vengeance on her fickle husband by killing her own children. More than a story, it’s become a familiar cultural touchstone. It’s been turned into a psychological complex and become the basis for countless adaptations, including Luis Alfaro’s Bruja at Magic Theatre just last year.

Joe Estlack and Jan Zvaifler in The Medea Hypothesis. Photo by Jim Norrena.

Joe Estlack and Jan Zvaifler in The Medea Hypothesis. Photo by Jim Norrena.

The latest of these is The Medea Hypothesis at Central Works, a Berkeley company that specializes in collaboratively developed new work. Written by Marian Berges, it’s the first play to come out of the Central Works Writers Workshop, the company’s new commissioning program, and reach full production in the Central Works season. Martin Edwards’s Pitch Perfect will be the second, coming up in July.

The Medea Hypothesis isn’t a retelling of Medea so much as a new riff on its themes. Most of the key elements are there: a formidable woman whose husband is leaving her for another woman, a powerful father of the other woman, a custody battle—there’s even a chorus in the form of our heroine’s personal assistant.

Played with brisk assurance by company codirector Jan Zvaifler, Em appears to be some kind of successful fashion designer. She’s extremely busy, hard-edged and somewhat high-strung, fretting about all kinds of random things like whether her hands are aging, “Look at my hands!” she tells Ian. “And what about global warming, huh?” Meanwhile he’s busily organizing her purse, which seems to only contain dozens of different colors of lipstick. While she does try to woo her husband back with gifts, she seems the model of self-sufficiency, insisting that she’s good on her own, at least until the wrongs and indignities just keep on coming.

Her assistant, Ian, attends to her every need, but also confronts her with harsh truths with a coldness bordering on contempt. Cory Censoprano gives Ian a slickness that makes him seem smarmy when he’s being helpful and sinister when he disapproves of what’s going on. There’s something not quite right about Ian, and it makes you curious what exactly that might be.

Joe Estlack turns in a masterful variety of well-drawn performances as Em’s grumpy and forgetful invalid father in a nursing home, an earnest and grounded plumber, and the amusingly ingratiating but Machiavellian father of the young model for whom Em’s husband is leaving her. (We never see the husband, called Justin, or his girlfriend Debbie.) He also has an entertaining turn as a lederhosen-clad waiter. (The costumes are by Tammy Berlin.)

This time there’s no set in the company’s intimate performance space in the Berkeley City Club, just a screen used for Skype conversations and other projections. There are certain characters that only appear onscreen, including Estlack’s sweet-talking Euro-gangster, Carl, and Dakota Dry as Em’s precocious little daughter, Sweetie.

Company codirector (and usual playwright) Gary Graves gives the play a strong, tight production that makes good use of Pauline Luppert’s video and other technical elements. Graves’s eerie lighting almost becomes a character in its own right as the play goes on. The play becomes increasingly compelling as Em’s tough exterior starts to crack and scenes become tenser, more suspenseful, and weirder. What feels at first merely like a Medea update for the information age instead slyly explores some fresh new ground. When the end comes it’s a little abrupt, but the road there proves an amusing, unnerving, and rewarding one.

The Medea Hypothesis
Through June 23
Central Works
Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #51 of 2013, attended May 18. 

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