The Orange Girls don't play it safe. Last October this fledgling company, composed of actresses Brooke Edwards, Michelle Hand and Meghan Maguire, debuted by introducing St. Louis theatergoers to Going to See the Elephant, a lovingly wrought exercise in prairie realism. For their second outing, the Orange Girls have turned away from realism to mount a Greek tragedy of legendary scope. Written in 431 B.C., Euripides' Medea is one of the most enduring dramas of all time. Its scrofulous themes of ambition, jealousy and monstrous revenge remain as contemporary as today's headlines.
"Love's rancid, sour," Medea's adoring Nurse (Mary Schnitzler) tells us early on. "Medea's out." You cannot hope for more succinct exposition than that. This 1990s translation "in simple words" by Kenneth McLeish and (former St. Louisan) Frederic Raphael is so distilled, it almost reads like haiku. But you get the essence: After having helped her husband Jason to capture the Golden Fleece, Medea has been banished in favor of a younger, more beautiful bride. But Medea is not merely a scorned wife; she is a sorceress, adept at stirring up potions and poisons, and she is not about to go gently.
So we begin with a timeless story and a clear, spare script. But the 85-minute production seems unsure as to how far it can overreach the bounds of conventionality. Four years ago, when this same translation was staged on Broadway with Fiona Shaw in the title role, Medea became a kind of pop star, complete with sunglasses and jogging sneakers, and members of the Greek chorus were paparazzi. Here again we have an updated staging, but where are we? In Greece, or closer to home? The screened-in back porch and wading pool might be in Ladue which would be fine, but inquiring minds want to know. The playbill tells us nothing about locale, and the production never establishes its universe.
Classic plays can withstand all kinds of impositions. Do you want to move Julius Caesar from ancient Rome to Nazi Germany? Do it. But once you make that change, you've got to go all the way. The more specific a production is, the more universal it's likely to become. In its use of props and costumes, this Medea would benefit from more specificity. Then too, there's a profound difference between tinkering with the time frame and altering the plot. Without spoiling the evening's unexpected climax, it should be noted that director Kelley Ryan has layered on an interpretation whose justifiability is open to discussion and even debate.
There are some interesting performances here, two by women enacting male roles. Nancy Lewis has no problem transforming Kreon, king of Corinth, into a tyrannical queen. By play's end, the switch even works to the story's benefit. In another piece of gender alchemy, Aigeus, the childless king of Athens, becomes a barren queen. Lauren Dunagan's nimble performance instills life into classicism. As the erring Jason, Joel Lewis dexterously treads the Scylla and Charybdis between menace and sympathy. There's a touch of young George C. Scott about him: He emits an appealing danger.
Curiously, it's the Orange Girls themselves who are most problematic. In the title role, Brooke Edwards renders a tormented portrayal, but she doesn't share her torment with the audience. A viewer will have to decide if simply observing a person in pain, without participating in the catharsis, is a satisfying enough experience. Michelle Hand and Meghan Maguire comprise the Chorus, but it's tough to ascertain their purpose. Are they objective commentators, intended to steer the viewer through the detritus of betrayal and death? Perhaps. But at times they sound like an extension of Medea's conscience, or even fragments of her fractured mind. Without greater clarity of purpose, they end up uttering many words to limited effect.
The result is a production that's more easily talked-about than felt. On a cerebral level, much of the Orange Girls Medea is challenging and thought-provoking; but viscerally, this eternal tale of passions unleashed remains surprisingly dispassionate.