Tuesday, September 15, 2020

346. MEDEA (two revivals). From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975


Al Freeman, Jr., Irene Papas.

MEDEA [Dramatic Revival] A: Euripides; TR: Minos Volanakis; S: Robert Mitchell; C: Nancy Potts; L: Marc B. Weiss; M: Michael Small; P: Circle in the Square; T: Circle in the Square Joseph E. Levine Theatre; 1/17/73-3/18/73 (70)

John P. Ryan Irene Papas.

There were two revivals in the early 70s of Euripides’ Greek tragedy about the horrible revenge taken by a barbarian queen betrayed by her Greek husband. If one considers yet another work, Medea and Jason, the next entry in this series, as a revival, then there actually were three. The first was this unsatisfactory arena staging at the recently opened Circle in the Square, which had moved from Off Broadway to on. It starred the esteemed Greek actress Irene Papas as the eponymous vengeance seeker, who slays her own kids to get back at the unfaithful Jason.

There were numerous complaints about director-adaptor Volanakis’s uncomfortably colloquial text, of which Clive Barnes snapped that “it sounds a little idiosyncratic and unnecessarily jazzy.” The attempt to make the play accessible also involved relating the plight of Medea to that of oppressed modern women, as well as to those who suffer alienation because of racial differences. This, too, was considered inappropriate. “The play is not . . . propagandistic; it embodies a questioning of life itself,” asserted Harold Clurman.

Volanakis used masks for all except Medea; Jason (John P. Ryan) removed his in a climactic scene at the end. Later, the chorus took off theirs. This confusing usage offended critics who were unclear as to what purpose the masks were intended to convey. The scene of the final confrontation of Medea and Jason disturbed some because of the director’s choice in having Medea’s voice played over the loud speaker system as her effigy sat on stage in the Sun God’s flying chariot.

The elaborately produced revival had some interesting moments, and the setting, using a central trap (to suggest a lava-rimmed crater) leading to the area beneath the arena, was effective. The general inadequacy of the direction and acting, however, seriously damaged the work. Papas played Medea in a low-keyed, naturalistic fashion that suggested a conventional New York housewife to Martin Gottfried, Walter Kerr, and Douglas Watt, although Barnes thought her “superb.” “I must regretfully conclude that her acting ability is minimal,” declared John Simon. “She does look imperious . . . ; she can turn the waterworks on at will,” but, he concluded, she sounded nothing like the character and her thick accent made many of her lines incomprehensible.

Cast members included Ron Faber as Kreon, Tally Brown as the Nurse, and Al Freeman, Jr., as the Messenger.


TR: Rex Warner; AD/D: George Arkas; S/L: George Patterson; C: Dimitri Smolens; M: Dimitris Drageatakis; P: Greek Art Theatre of New York; T: Players Theatre (OB): 10/30/73-12/2/73 (40)

Yula Gavala, Oliver Malcolmson.

Several months after the previous Medea had left the scene came another version, this one Off Broadway, under the aegis of a new company the Greek Art Theatre, consisting of Greek and Greek-American actors, although also including actors with no Greek heritage. 

Originally, the company presented the play at the Academy of Theatrical Arts, opening on July 19, 1973, for three performances, under Off-0ff Broadway conditions. The present Off-Broadway mounting kept some of the original cast, with a few actors playing different roles, although Greek actress Yula Gavala remained as Medea. Grant Stewart, the original Jason, was now the Messenger, Anne Farrington was replaced as the Nurse by Shirley O’Key, Anthony Whitehouse was replaced as Creon by Oliver Malcolmson, and so on.

Regardless, George Arkas’s staging, wrote Clive Barnes, was erratic, yet, he conceded, the show grew somewhat stronger as it progressed. There was a marked disparity in quality among the actors and very little of an ensemble quality had been realized. John Simon admitted that Arkas drove him “out of the theatre after twenty minutes.”

Gavala’s Medea was “a monumental Earth mother. . . ,” Barnes revealed. “She can monotonously tear a passion to tatters, but often does so with gloweringly impressive style.”