By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
Playwright Allison Gregory’s comedy/drama Not Medea is on a collision course … with itself! And part of the immense entertainment provided by this Off the Wall Pittsburgh premiere is waiting breathlessly to find out if anyone survives.
Another element of this wonderfully theatrical evening is the limitlessly compelling performance from Drew Leigh Williams in the lead role. In past shows around town, Williams has demonstrated that she can sing with a voice guaranteed to blow the back of your head off, and now here she is in a non-singing role and I still had to make sure my head was in one piece. I can’t say that Williams does everything brilliantly; like any human being she probably comes up short in some areas. But I can say that none of those areas involve anything to do with theatrical performance.
Not Medea continues through October 19. Carnegie Stage, 724/783-3576. www.insideoffthewall.com
The production is directed with a scalding intelligence by Allison Weakland who knows exactly when to push right up to the line and pull back just enough, allowing Gregory’s script to do what it’s been designed for.
This is a playwright drunk on the language and capable of some absolutely gorgeous dialogue. Even when the script threatens to become somewhat eclipsed by its – at times – precious theatricality and looming imminent crash (which I swear we’re gonna get to) Gregory’s writing remains a huge source of pleasure.
Now about that collision … The show opens with Williams’ character (unnamed throughout) entering the performance space as an audience member. She’s an obviously overworked, undervalued, stressed-out woman who’s come to the theater for a night of entertainment. Brother has she made a mistake! The theater she’s wandered into is giving a performance of that classic Greek drama, Euripides’ Medea … not exactly the sort of show you’d seek out when you’re an overworked, undervalued, stressed-out woman. While waiting for the lights to go down, she chats directly to us about her messy life while fielding phone calls from family members needing problem-solving.
But once the classic Medea starts up, the Woman finds herself being drawn inexorably into the production; despite her claiming “I’m not Medea!” she ends both playing the role while playing herself watching herself playing the role.
In this play-within-a-play, she’s joined by Allan Snyder as Jason (he of the Golden Fleece) and Elizabeth Boyke, Medea’s handmaiden. Both Snyder and Boyke have a difficult task; they must stay inside Euripides’ Medea and never break through into Not Medea. And both succeed with terrific force and conviction. These are not eyebrow raised, tongue-in-cheek performances, but powerfully strong actors remaining deep inside their roles forming the solid foundation which allows Williams to toggle between the two stories.
If you remember anything about the story of Medea, it’s probably that when hubby Jason abandons her, Medea poisons the other woman and murders her own children – and one half of Gregory’s play is giving us Medea’s relentless march to her own destiny.
The second part is the Women moving forward on her own path. It’s soon revealed that she is not just some wayward audience member; she’s got a messy past involving a screwed up family backstory, a philandering husband and two kids of her own.
In this intermissionless play (and on Adrienne Fischer’s clever and defining set) Not Medea barrels along these two tracks like trains racing for the same terminal and you’re transfixed wondering if one will reach it first or they’ll both explode on contact.
Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Gregory has made the Woman a contemporary version of Medea and everything that happens to that ancient character is revisited, in present-day terms, on the Woman. And for a big chunk of the night, you’re left to wonder if Gregory has actually written a modern play in which the heroine kills her own children for revenge. In the over 3,500 shows I’ve seen as a reviewer, that’s one ending I’ve never witnessed on stage. Does Gregory have the sheer, remorseless playwriting audacity to put such a thing on stage? Or will she turn tail and pull herself back from this horrific brink? (A predictable, but understandable maneuver.)
I’m not about to tell you which. But when you see it, and you definitely should, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about what Gregory ultimately decides.