It was 431 B.C.E.!
A relatively young, talented playwright named (somewhat unfortunately) Euripides had finally scrimped and saved enough to buy him a one-way ticket from the small island of Salamis to the big city!
Athens! Where he could finally brush shoulders with playwright legends — most of who had names that rhymed with his! (Wow!) Where he could finally enter in his play to his first playwriting contest, The City Dionysus! What an exciting time to be alive!
Euripides arrives and enters a play he’s poured his mind! his body! and his heart! into: “Medea”!
Medea. With just the title, Euripides departed from Greek tradition; Medea was a mere supporting character in the myth of the hero Jason — Jason, the dreamy leader of the Argonauts, the hunk who stole the Golden Fleece, the stud muffin who would have married into royalty if it were not for the meddling witch, Medea.
But Euripides recast the characters, giving Jason less than noble motivations. He also gave Medea emotions that forced audiences to sympathize with her even as she plots the unthinkable. He chose to explore Medea’s psyche rather than Jason’s, an innovation in tragedy at the time.
Because so much of “Medea” is (obviously) centered on the thoughts of its titular character, a wronged woman who will bite back instead of passively accepting the actions of the men who control her, it’s often read as a feminist text.
In 431 B.C.E., “Medea” placed the last in the contest, a blow to Euripides’ writing career. He seems to have bounced back from it, though: “Medea” is the 20th century’s most frequently performed Greek tragedy.
It was 2016 C.E.!
A young, talented actress named Anya Markowitz ’17 decided that her senior Theater Studies project would be Euripides’ “Medea”! Michaela Johnson ’17 (who, among other plays, directed the incredible “Why We Have Winter” last year) would be the director!
It’s a challenging play to translate from its intended setting; Markowitz and Johnson’s version translates into a suburban 1950s home, complete with bright green accents and white dining hall furniture. The set is straight from a vintage ad: the colors, the kitchen, the vinyl. Medea — and every character but Jason — is costumed in period dress. The setting is visually appealing, but also effectively symbolically: It connects Medea to the repressed 1950s housewife. Think Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”
Markowitz enters the stage as Medea for the first time in a floor-length, lacy pale-green nightgown. Immediately, her presence lights up the stage. She’s tasked with portraying a woman that has given everything to a man — every inch of her soul owned by her former lover.
Medea was in love with Jason, so she carved herself into a shape that would fit him. Medea killed her brother and betrayed her father and murdered a stranger for him. Because he asked her to. The role requires a reservoir of strength to accomplish, to perform convincingly. Markowitz was more than able to. It’s a terribly difficult character to access, but Markowitz falls into Medea seamlessly.
“I am lost. All joy of life is gone. I even want to die.” I was squirming in my seat from the beginning. Markowitz is so convincingly hopeless in the beginning, before she slowly transforms into a woman about to act. A woman who would kill her children to dispose of Jason, the man who left her bed for another woman’s.
The chorus witnesses it alongside the audience. In many Greek plays, the chorus represents what the people — the audience — want to express to the characters. In Markowitz and Johnson’s vision of the play, the chorus is composed of two housewives, portrayed by Eleanor Slota ’17 and Rora Brodwin ’18.
Slota and Brodwin are Medea’s audience (in addition to the actual audience), alternatively hilarious and powerful. They are perfectly cast, able to work off of each other so well. Their reactions and their journey through the play are beautifully performed. Their dresses — the classic A line — and purses enhance the setting magnificently.
Jason is the only one dressed incongruously, entering in a tuxedo (with a tail!). Portrayed by Peter Rothpletz ’19, Jason is more than believable as a hero, someone so into themselves that they can’t see past their own self-interest. Rothpletz is most powerful in Medea’s last scene, while grieving for his two lost children.
This is partly why Euripides’ “Medea” is so powerful; why Euripides’ name is still printed on theater-studies textbooks.
Reading “Medea” as a feminist play is difficult on the surface — Medea kills the woman that was meant to replace her and her own two sons, just to force Jason to feel pain. Euripides’ Medea tells everyone that she feels twice Jason’s pain, but she doesn’t care.
Medea is an imperfect character with complex emotions and a tragic ending. Her slaughter of her two sons isn’t the ultimate sign that she’s rejecting the male gender, that she’s a man-hating witch. The journey along which Markowitz takes her character to allow her to commit this unspeakable act is what makes her portrayal so poignant.
As Markowitz herself says, “She is the Medea that is too big and too small for her living room … she is part of ourselves that we sometimes catch a glimpse of in the mirror. She may be an echo, but she is still very much alive.”
Medea is playing in the Whitney Theater from October 13 to 15.