Medea brings new meaning to catharsis

Imago presents a gut-wrenching Greek tragedy on a slanted stage

“Does the word ‘catharsis’ have Greek origins?” I wondered as I watched Imago’s Medea. Sure enough—and its meanings have been faithfully maintained: Katharsis and related words imply vomiting, purging or bodily cleansing, with an aim toward purity. When the body is sick, it triggers nausea (another Greek word, for seasickness specifically), and before the body can rest—either in repose or death—it must first expel some poison.

And yet, there’s a natural impulse among “civilized” people to resist the impulse to purge, to contain the inevitable upheaval. Guts clench and wrench. Teeth gnash and throats choke. And in that moment, however brief or prolonged, there’s suspense and tension. In the nausea before the catharsis, sickened people are holding in an ocean’s worth of sorrow. They’re dry-heaving a clutch of tortured sobs before unleashing a torrent. And that, Friends, is the feeling of a good Greek tragedy.

Anne Sorce as Medea: a family tragedy. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

For an archetypal figure from antiquity, Medea’s plight is surprisingly universal. The mother of two (played by the always-commanding Anne Sorce) has just lost her cheating, midlife-crisis-indulging husband Jason (played by the equally-formidable Todd Van Voris) to a much younger woman, and it’s driving her crazy. As her ex-husband’s wedding day approaches, she schemes about how to make him pay, deciding that ultimately she’s willing to add to her own suffering in order to inflict her pain on him. Medea, her nursemaid/narrator (Madeleine Delaplane), and a chorus of Medea’s peers spend much of the play in a prolonged reverie of poetic nausea, trying in vain to choke back the forthcoming horrors the scorned woman is about to release. They wail. They moan. They warn. And we wait trepidatiously.

Imago, a veteran theater company equally obsessed with ancient performance traditions, physicality, and innovative stagings, lends its version of Medea added suspense and forces its figures onto their sea-legs by using a device it calls a “tilting stage.” Picture what looks like a giant greenish marble square slab, seeming to float several feet above the stage, casting a sharp black shadow beneath it. As performers in togas pace upon the slab, it moves to accommodate their varying weight. It lists to one side like a ship. It slopes down and then drops off abruptly like a cliff. Like a teeter-totter, it allows a heavier person to push a lighter person aloft and leave them hanging, unable to safely come down.

Medea, tipping the scales of justice. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

Unless you caught Imago’s production of Sartre’s No Exit way back in ’98, or one of its revivals (the last was in 2009), you’ve probably never seen anything like this tilting stage. Its spectacle value alone would be significant, but what’s more, this conceit is incredibly appropriate for this story. First, it evokes Greek settings (ships, cliffs, marble, and when strategically lit, Jason’s fabled golden fleece). Second, it exaggerates power struggles and conquest strategies. Sometimes the slab resembles mapped topography even as the figures upon it vie for territory. Sometimes it tips drastically in one character’s favor, or forces a character into a prostrate position to keep from falling. On this stage, and under Jerry Mouawad’s direction, we’re keenly aware of who’s looming, who’s begging, who’s teetering and who’s securely astride at any given time.

I daresay Greek myths by Euripides are ancient enough to have come full circle, from everybody knowing how they end, to most people having long since forgotten. If you plan to see this Medea, you might be wisest to avoid studying up. Though you already know it’s a tragedy, there are just enough components to Medea’s evil plan that uninformed audience members may be able to eke some suspense out of not knowing which deeds she’ll follow through. Furthermore, having passed through the competent hands of The National Theatre’s ancient-text-adapter extraordinaire Ben Power, this play takes on a more direct and declarative voice than its original text. Where Euripides’ text is chock full of cross-references to other gods and stories from the pantheon, Power references these more sparsely for the modern reader. Where the insults Medea and Jason exchange in older translations are mired in “thees” and “hasts,” their edited barbs use “you,” and cut to the quick.

“I civilized you!” roars Jason.

“[You are] grossly in love with a little girl!” bellows Medea.

Snap.

Sorce and Van Voris: the battle royal. John Rudoff/Polaris Images

“Catharsis” in modern artistic parlance has come to mean a harmless release of stress, after which the artist and audience feel better. Believing the bromide that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, you emerge from an artistic catharsis realizing that after spilling your metaphorical guts, you’re still very much, or maybe more than ever, alive. Medea may go over the edge, but the rest of us can still pull back from the brink, can still tip the scales back in our favor. And that’s the relief that follows a good Greek tragedy.

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Medea continues through May 26 at Imago Theatre. Ticket and schedule information here.

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