Dallas — Medea is not a play to be undertaken lightly. The most performed and disturbing tragedy in the magnificent Greek canon demands an enormously talented troupe of actors, and a select audience willing to hear terrible truths about the bloody acts of the dispossessed when driven into a corner.
To balance the act, as it were, Dallas Theater Center Artist Director Kevin Moriarty elected to pair Euripides’ dark tale of betrayal from 450 BCE with Moliére’s lighthearted The School for Wives (1662), a playful farce where foolish schemers get their come-uppance in properly coiffed enlightened ways. The shows are performed in repertory at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. The comedy is upstairs in the big theater with the perfect rake and lovely seats. The tragedy—performed in an opened out basement space with maybe 70 folding chairs in semi-circular tiers—is riveting and, well, terrifying. One day in Medea’s diminishing, desperate world is rendered in 100 minutes of mounting female fury.
Even before the show starts, the audience is divided by gender and led down the stairs where women are seated in the front rows and men behind them, the better to encourage female audience members to feel part of a Greeek chorus given voice by a solemn Christie Vela, in an opening chant about the violent nature of love.
Sally Nystuen Vahle is a tornado of a gathering force as Medea, the passionate sorceress-princess from beyond the Black Sea, rendered homeless and begging when the hero she betrayed her father for dumps her and their two young sons to marry the rich, young Corinthian princess.
We learn about the extremes of Medea’s plight from her faithful old nurse (a prophetic Liz Mikel). King Creon (a weary, indignant Kieran Connolly) has come to banish her and her children from Corinth because he fears for his daughter. We hear Medea’s wails and muffled sobs coming from a winding concrete ramp that empties into stage center before she appears amidst the rubble of old props and loosely stacked wooden palettes.
Her hair is a tangled auburn-hued halo surrounding her broad, pale open face, a face gone numb and hollow-eyed from grieving. Medea’s nurse says her mistress has become “a stone,” and there is something rock-hard at the center of Nystuen Vahle's Medea, even in her piteous raving.
Her green gown askew and her bare arms glowing in Paul Toben’s harsh light, Medea is both heartbroken and fueled by her rising hatred for Jason, perfectly embodied by Chris Hury with steady arrogance and the confident stride of an aging hero. When she reminds him she saved his life and murdered her brother to ensure him the glory of bringing home the Golden Fleece, Jason is cool with all that. He replies that he has given Media much more by bringing her to the grand land of Greece from a “barbarous land.” Our sympathy for the sinned-against Medea grows as we listen to Jason’s blind and egotistical view that he’s doing it all for the kids. Zeus save us.
This Medea is still a strong woman; she attacks Jason head on and brings him to the ground when her fury wants physical release. Then she cunningly shifts to penitent mode to gain complicity in her awful revenge. Medea invokes Hecate’s powers as she approaches her cabinet of potions, a sheeted and shadowed stack of shelves with forms not quite identifiable. Set designer Jo Winiarski has made stunning use of the actual workshop areas in the real theater’s basement shop where so many visions have been framed for the stage.
Medaa glows with pleasure and a flare of empowerment when she learns her magical golden gift to Jason’s bride-to-be has fulfilled its gruesome task. We don’t want to imagine the choice she must finally make—but we watch, riveted to our folding chairs, as she makes it.
The ensemble surrounding Nystuen Vahle is a fortress of talent and nuance, but it’s Vahle’s show. This actress brought the Angel in Kushner’s Angels in America to radiant life 20 years ago in the main theater, and got standing ovations night after night in the title role of the all-female Macbeth in the basement theater during the same era. Her Medea is a revelation, but the extraordinary passion and talent she brings to the stage every time is no surprise.
» Our review of DTC's The School for Wives