Thursday, November 03, 2005

Medea on Trial

Purgatorio by Ariel Dorfman, Directed by David Esbjornson, Seattle Repertory Theatre, Through November 26, 2005

The stage is a bare white room with white furniture, brilliantly lit. The actors are but two - "Man" (Dan Snook) and "Woman" (Charlayne Woodard). The plot moves forward of its own volition and counts on you being bright enough to catch up. And you're thinking - OK, we're trapped in another interesting backchannel of theatrical world - the postmodern play.

And it is, but its really a lot more than that. It's an excellent play about redemption, healing, forgiveness, and personal growth. It makes loops in time and character development and leaves the viewer connecting dots that may or may not truly be connected. It engages and makes you think. That's a good thing.

The white room is one of millions in the afterlife waystation of Purgatory. This is not Dante's Purgatory, but something closer to Albert Brook's Defending Your Life, where souls are placed for therapy to determine if they are fit to be recycled into new life or obliterated entirely. The Woman is Medea from the play by Euripides - she who gives Jason the Golden Fleece, runs off with him, bears him two children, is cast aside for another woman, and kills other woman and children. The Man is, well, an angel or servitor or other spirit who is her counselor, evaluator, and sole contact in this afterlife, who will make the decision on her continued existence.

Woman/Medea rails and collapses, advances slowly but surely, fails and recovers and rages, and is forced to face her worst fears and the horror and responsibility for her actions. Then we blackout and reverse roles. When the lights come up, Man is the prisoner in this Purgatory, and is Jason, who pulled Medea away and then betrayed her and killed himself. Woman is now the counselor, evaulator, and contact. Man/Jason moves through a similar-but-different process, and then we black out and flip again. By the end of the play you have a connection between Jason and the Male counselor, Medea and the Female counselor, Jason and Medea, and both with the nature of Purgatory itself in a funhouse mirror resolution.

The actors are simply excellent. Charlayne Woodard was previously in In Real Life at the REP, an autobiographical one-woman show of her time with Ain't Misbehavin' (before I started keeping this journal, but trust me, she was great). Here she moves with the power of the sorcerous and sensuous Medea, raging against life and afterlife and driving the play forward. Dan Snook starts with the lower-key, reactive roll, but as the play's plot unspools, his very reserved nature makes sense and folds back in on his behavior, and he becomes a volcano about to go off.

There is a third character, even more quicksilver than the two players - a Purgatory that exists without heaven or hell. As we move through the play, the nature and rules of a time-bent place seem to curve back on themselves. Purgatory is in turns a mental hospital, a place of judgement, a prison, and a faceless bureaucracy. It has both a healing hand and fascist armlock. Just as the characters affect each other, they seem to warp the nature and the rules of the white room they occupy. As a result, at the end, you're thinking about both characters and place and the redemptive natures of Dorfman's universe.

This is a thinking person's play, and the REP pulls it off well (though again, it is one better suited for a more intimate stage, though for different reasons that King Stag). It is well-recommended if you are the type of theatre patron that likes to see the play, then spend the next hour or so taking apart its meaning over Thai food.

The Lovely Bride enjoyed this as well - she knows her Medea legend well, and liked how, within the minimalist environment, the author has curved everything back on itself, to create a play that is both tidy and open-ended. Oh, and of great importance to her - no puppets this time. For this she is greatly appreciative.

More later,