By Erik Nikander
Not Medea is a stirring character portrait, a detailed examination of the ruthless demands society makes — and has always made — on women.
Not Medea by Allison Gregory. Directed by Elizabeth Yvette Ramirez. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA, through March 30.
Allison Gregory’s Not Medea is a metatheatrical juggling act, flinging up ideas, emotions, and narrative flourishes. It’s a study of profound grief, a retelling of the Medea myth, a critical examination of that ancient story, and a piece of social commentary on the burdens modern society makes women bear. On occasion, the proceedings feel somewhat wobbly, a jumble of tones and moods that threatens to buckle under its own weight. Not Medea may be a strange journey, but Gregory’s nimble writing and Flat Earth Theatre’s commitment to the script make it a trip worth taking. Even during the play’s flightier moments, Juliet Bowler’s raw, uncompromising lead performance gives the audience something substantial to hold onto.
It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Not Medea “breaks” the fourth wall. There isn’t any separation between the audience and the action of the play to begin with. During Flat Earth’s curtain speech, an exhausted woman (Juliet Bowler) shows up late to the play. She wanders among us, looking for a seat. She tries to tell the audience members some self-effacing jokes to relieve the awkwardness before giving up and sitting in a chair on the stage. And then she notices that play we’re all about to see is Medea.
Something about this Greek tragedy sets the woman into a fury; she chides us, as if we’re not truly equipped to understand the awful depths of Medea’s actions. Soon the ancient play comes to life around her, guiding her into a dark chapter in her past. As we follow the woman’s journey through Medea’s shoes, guided along by the Chorus (Cassandra Meyer), we’re challenged to examine our assumptions about a story we thought we knew well.
Bowler’s rich performance paints a detailed, thorough portrait of a woman who is, as the play’s title implies, not Medea. That said, the two women have a great deal in common. As she lives through Medea’s betrayal by Jason (Gene Dante) and repeats the mythical sorceress’s decision to murder her children, she must come to grips with the treacherous men and brushes with death that have defined her own life. Medea’s legend has long been celebrated as a literary touchstone, but Not Medea reminds us that the tragedy at the core of her story isn’t ancient or inaccessible. It can be found all around us, even if most of us try our best not to see it.
Gregory doesn’t sand down her protagonist’s rough edges, and Elizabeth Yvette Ramirez directs the show with the same unflinching determination. Bowler also commits fully to this often-difficult material, but her performance isn’t in the least grim or hopeless; she gives us a truthful study of a difficult person. She’s often extraordinarily funny, too, even if the character uses her sense of humor as a means of deflecting her discomfort. We grow to understand that this person is fiercely determined to keep her guard up, even though the result is that normalcy slips further and further out of her grasp. It is not always easy to witness this woman’s story, but even at its bleakest moments Bowler’s journey into the core of her character’s pain is never less than honest and moving.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the play sometime diverges from the narrative thrust of that core journey. Not Medea‘s critical examination of the Medea myth is thoughtful and serious, but the evaluation also has the effect of shifting the play’s tone from a tragic character study to something that feels more academic. The critical asides aren’t out of place per se — they connect to the show’s central themes. But they remind us that we’re watching a play about a play. There’s deeply compelling material here, but Gregory’s structural choices work against the play’s emotional power, at least on occasion.
Flat Earth’s technical presentation does wonders to assist Not Medea in blending the mythical with the mundane. Ben Lieberson’s set strikes a balance between the grounded and the ethereal, combining rustic cabin decor with an all-white color scheme that, in coordination with Connor S. Van Ness’s expressive lighting, strikes an otherworldly note. The barred window on the back wall conjures up images of an old-timey jail, cleverly alluding to the woman’s sense of confinement. Kyle Lampe’s sound work makes the beauty and tragedy of the piece even more stirring while Jake Scaltreto’s props work is detail-oriented and thorough. Small artifacts of 21st century life, like a photo frame and a travel umbrella, bring the ancient and modern together, much as the play does.
Not Medea is a stirring character portrait, a detailed examination of the ruthless demands society makes — and has always made — of women. Driven by a courageous, no-holds-barred lead performance from Bowler, the production generates compelling drama and comedy from its study of emotional trauma. But the clever, self-conscious nature of Gregory’s script is sometimes more of a drawback than a boon. Despite this tonal shakiness, the show is always fascinating, due in no small part to the clarity of Ramirez’s staging. Not Medea leads audiences into difficult and uncomfortable territory, but for those who have the nerve — venture forth.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.