Missing the modern stakes

Automatic Arts presents Josh McIlvain’s ‘PURE MEDEA’

4 minute read
Trying to master ‘Medea’: Homer Robinson and Sophia Barrett in ‘PURE MEDEA.’ (Photo by Ceilidh Madigan.)
Trying to master ‘Medea’: Homer Robinson and Sophia Barrett in ‘PURE MEDEA.’ (Photo by Ceilidh Madigan.)

Philly’s Automatic Arts celebrates its 10th anniversary with PURE MEDEA, an ambitious adaptation of Euripides’s Medea written by the company’s own Josh McIlvain.

Remember Medea?

For those who can’t quite recall their Greek mythology, Medea is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god. She runs away with and marries Jason, leader of the Argonauts, after killing her brother to help Jason escape with the Golden Fleece.

The original play opens with Medea lamenting the news that Jason is leaving her and their two sons for the king’s daughter, Glauce. Worried that Medea will cause problems for him and his daughter, King Creon banishes Medea and the children from the country. In order to get her revenge on Jason, Medea plots and carries out the murders of Glauce, Creon, and her own children.

The chorus

McIlvain’s PURE MEDEA covers all of this, but from a behind-the-scenes perspective of actors at a rehearsal. The four actors, Lindsey (Sophia Barrett), Dan (Josh McLucas), Kim (Lauren Suchenski), and Barry (Homer Robinson), run through the play while their director, Holli (Hallie Martenson), interjects notes and explanations.

Historically, the Greek chorus is charged with the role of narration through song and dance—explaining the play to the audience, shining light on the moral lessons, and often pleading with the characters to make better decisions. In place of a chorus, McIlvain effectively places the director in this role. As the actors rehearse, she inserts herself by explaining character intentions, pointing out ironic moments, and at times pleading with the actors to make better artistic decisions.

The players in the play

The play-within-a-play concept usually informs the story in some way, possibly with foreshadowing, as in The King and I, or to add tension and drama, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But instead of using pieces of Medea, we get a choppy version of the entire play as the actors break character to make jokes, ask questions, or receive direction. None of this would be an issue if they were telling a story of their own, but they aren’t—or at least not one with any stakes.

A new kind of chorus: Homer Robinson, Sophia Barrett, Josh McLucas, and Hallie Martenson. (Photo by Ceilidh Madigan.)
A new kind of chorus: Homer Robinson, Sophia Barrett, Josh McLucas, and Hallie Martenson. (Photo by Ceilidh Madigan.)

While the actors themselves play their Medea roles-within-the-roles well, their PURE MEDEA characters are one-dimensional, and as an ensemble, they fulfill the stereotype of self-indulgent theater group members making coarse jokes that only they find funny. No time is spent fleshing out the characters, explaining their relationships with one another, or giving the audience reason to care about them.

Medea, on the other hand, offers complex characters with plenty of both internal and external conflict. We know what’s at stake here—but when placed within the context of a play rehearsal, these stakes are also removed, and the story becomes watered down. As an audience member, I know I am not watching Medea. I am watching Lindsey—an emotional and often insecure actor—try to master her role as Medea, but I don’t know why I should be invested in Lindsey’s story.

Intentions and risks

PURE MEDEA uses a translation of Medea completed by Sheila Murnaghan, a professor of Greek at the University of Pennsylvania. Greek tragedies were traditionally poetic and lyrical in nature, but of the three most acclaimed tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—Euripides's works come the closest to real speech. For this reason, Murnaghan intentionally chooses in her translation to write as people actually speak today. By choosing to surrender some of her “allegiance to the Greek,” Murnaghan makes the play more accessible to modern audiences.

After the performance I attended, Murnaghan was present for a postshow talkback in which she shared some context. Medea was first performed in 431 BCE at a religious festival in Athens, Greece, honoring Dionysus. The play came in third place and many scholars believe that the festival’s audience was all male—which raises the question of Euripides’s intentions. Considering that Medea escapes at the end without any punishment for her crimes, is it possible that he was issuing a warning to those who oppress woman? If so, is this why the work continues to resonate with audiences today?

Having created and produced only original work for the last 10 years is a feat for which Automatic Arts deserves recognition. Similarly, the company’s willingness to take big risks, like this attempt to tackle a classic, is commendable, despite PURE MEDEA not quite delivering. PURE MEDEA’s vision “to intertwine the machinations of Medea’s revenge upon her husband with the smaller tragedies—and petty rivalries—of the actor’s personal and professional lives” is a worthwhile one, but it needs better-developed characters and stakes.

What, When, Where

PURE MEDEA. Written and directed by Josh McIlvain. Through May 19, 2019, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 North American Street, Philadelphia. automaticartsco.com.

Christ Church Neighborhood House is a wheelchair-accessible venue.

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