Cinderella’s got Macbeth’s dagger and it’s her tiara that kills off Medea’s rival.
No mere panache, “Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” splices together three shows, each with its own history and identity: Euripides’ “Medea,” translated by Paul Roche, Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella.” Without quite being a musical, it also features numbers from “Medea,” with music and lyrics by Shishir Kurup, and American standards from “Cinderella.”
The obvious commonality among the three shows is in their protagonists. The eponymous three share elements of ambition, determination and even greed.
Every preschooler knows the story of Cinderella: thanks to a fairy godmother, the oppressed-but-deserving stepdaughter gets the dress, the slippers, and, finally, the prince, while her evil stepmother and stepsisters are left gasping in her dust. It helps that “Macbeth,” too, is a staple of high school (and college) English. Aided and abetted by the scheming, eventually suicidal Lady Macbeth, Scottish laird Macbeth gains the throne by regicide, only to be erased himself when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. “Medea” may be slightly less well known, but luckily its plot is easy to follow. Medea is a foreigner in the homeland of her husband, Jason (of golden fleece flame). To win friends and influence people, Jason has decided to take the nymphet daughter of his king, Creon, as a second wife. Enraged by jealousy, Medea kills both father and daughter and punishes Jason by killing her own (and his) children.
The show’s interwoven yet completely independent plot lines may be the ultimate expression of structuralism. Conceived by Bill Rauch and adapted by Rauch and Tracy Young, the show makes a leap beyond the near-cliche device of overlapping dialogue. The commonality of themes could not be illustrated more clearly or persistently. Fathers and sons, power struggles, greed, jealousy, women seeking men, men seeking power, guilt, desire, phallic symbols (lots of swords) — it’s all there, almost ad nauseum. Sight gags and inventive, playful moments of overlap help keep it fresh even as the point is made again and again.
“Cinderella” occupies an interesting position in the show, not quite the “low” culture to match the “high” of the “M”s, but very different from them both in important ways. It’s not exactly mockery when the show stops for Cinderella (Heather Mazur DRA ’03) to earnestly intone, “Impossible things happen every day, and even foolish dreams come true,” but it’s right on the edge. Of course, part of the fun is watching the pretty-in-pink Cinderella compared to Lady Macbeth’s murderous intentions as she wishes “very, very hard” to go to the ball.
In a strong cast, the true standout is Christopher Moore, a downright terrifying Lady Macbeth. Having played the role in both previous productions of the show, including the 1984 original, Moore ought to be good, but his performance ranges far beyond mere competence to creepy, androgynous perfection. The gender-bending casting has political undertones but Moore is obviously just the best person — man or woman — for the role. As Macbeth and Macduff, Stephen Pelinski and Peter Howard command the stage, at crucial moments strong-arming the audience into the world of Shakespeare’s Scottish masterpiece, whatever other shenanigans are going on.
One exception is the badly miscast Jennifer Griffin as Jason. Cross-casting no longer counts as revolutionary, and whatever symbolic aims might have been accomplished by casting a woman as the macho warrior were undermined by the result. Where Moore is a smoldering female presence opposite the masterful Pelinski, Griffin is an unworthy foe, barely even a foil, to a savagely furious Medea (Caroline Clay). Griffin is crowded by the strong performances around her and lost in the folds of her costume, to the point where the audience is visibly struggling to remember who she is.
The show runs for over two and a half hours, but even at that length a lot is missing. Inevitably, the plays have all been sliced and diced in extreme ways. For audience members familiar with “Macbeth” especially, the frenetic pacing will leave a lot to be desired. The big-time speeches do get center stage — Macbeth sees his dagger, even if it is held by Cinderella — but much of one of Shakespeare’s best plays is reduced to verbal wallpaper. At a certain point, it verges on a tiring waste of words. Musical numbers from both “Cinderella” and “Medea” ease the strain, but it’s nonetheless a sad moment when you’re relieved to take a break from Shakespeare for “Boys and Girls Like You and Me,” enjoyable though Rodgers’ melodies are.
“Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” goes from strength to strength, but Rachel Hauck’s sets deserve to be singled out for special recognition. Strikingly architectural, it’s a maze of black stairs, ramps and platforms crowned by two luminously red, towering thrones. Despite its apparent sparseness, this set is clearly the deluxe edition, with elements popping up everywhere, including a fountain/cauldron that bears an intriguing resemblance to the Women’s Table.
Brilliant performances and bold production values make this a Yale Repertory Theatre production to remember, despite the drawbacks of its experimental format. Overall, it bodes well for the tenure of new Drama School Dean James Bundy, who has made this his signature show of the season.