John Freedman «Raw and Rude «Medea» Confronts, Tells Truth»

The Moscow Times 05.11.2009

The last trio of productions from Kama Ginkas at the Theater Yunogo Zritelya strike me as signaling a shift in this director’s work. His latest, “Medea,” unveiled over the weekend, appears to be a culmination or, at least, amplification of this trend.

Make no mistake. Ginkas is still throwing down gauntlets. All, or at least many, of the proprieties generally honored by polite society are violated here. Even as actors speak the collated literate texts of Jean Anouilh, Seneca and Joseph Brodsky, they seem to be spitting in our faces, taunting us, mocking us and, what is equally important, themselves as well.

What strikes me as different is that the discourse in Ginkas’ shows has grown more cranky and coarse. That’s a description, not a value judgment. His “A Ridiculous Poem,” “Roberto Zucco” and now “Medea” reveal an agonizing, I would say excruciating, irritation with almost all things human. They seem to be portraits of open, festering wounds.

Ginkas’ famous triptych of Chekhov productions, his duet of pieces based on Alexander Pushkin, his staging of Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” and others were all challenging and uncompromising. But even as they drew blood by slashing us, they bore an innate sense of aesthetic sophistication.

“Medea,” by contrast, is rather like a jarring ride in an old flat cart on a rocky road.

Designer Sergei Barkhin provided an appropriately “unpleasant” physical setting — a crumbling, tasteless kitchen or bathhouse into which a flow of lava appears to have broken, creating something of a stairway to nowhere. An open tap in a sink gushes water that floods half the stage. Cascading splashes, caused by actors writhing in or running through the “lake,” as well as shimmering reflections of light on the walls, create the show’s sole visual elements of beauty.

Medea is not a congenial character. Traitor, murderer and sorceress, her most vile deed was to slaughter her children to spite her husband Jason for abandoning her and marrying the daughter of Creon. Jason, in this production, declares that “the world has turned into Medea,” and feebly admits that he “cannot stop what evil” she will do to others.

In the role of Medea, Yekaterina Karpushina is a leering, lurching, treacherous force of nature. Occasionally slipping into a false, high-pitched feminine purr, she sounds like someone trying to be human. But as quickly as that thought flashes in the mind, she drops down into a rumbling, ominous voice that sounds as if it may be rising up from Dante’s “Inferno.”

There is no doubt from the first moments of this production that Medea will do something awful. It is clear in her actions and intonations, and in the words written between the lines of what she says.

She begs, threatens and cajoles King Creon (Igor Yasulovich) to have her killed. She pleads with Jason (Igor Gordin) to do the same. Neither of them can. Creon, entangled in political intrigue, is also crippled by humanistic principles. Jason, even when softened by the glowing embers of a love now lost, refuses to be drawn into violence.

“I want to stop,” says the former warrior and hero. “I want to be human.”

Medea, on the other hand, is unstoppable.

Gordin’s quiet, measured, intelligent and heartfelt delivery of Jason’s plea to live a “normal” life is a thing of beauty and power. But its principal quality arguably is its impotence.

Ginkas toys with the conventions of theater to break the pathos of the performance — or to ratchet it up. Karpushina once stops the action to encourage an audience reaction following a moving speech by People’s Artist of Russia Igor Yasulovich. She reads texts from history books, and slips into sublime excerpts from Brodsky’s poem “Portrait of Tragedy.”

Creon humorously and bizarrely makes his first appearance in the full-body mask of a menacing Aztec ruler. Laughter erupts when the bookish, feeble politician crawls out from behind the disguise.

Murder, when it comes, is basically an afterthought, a small detail that hardly causes Medea to wince.

What she doesn’t expect, however, is that when she attempts to “bury” the bodies of her dead babies by sinking them in the water — she cannot do it. The bodies keep resurfacing for all to see.

Ginkas’ “Medea” is bound to offend more than a few spectators. It is raw and rude. The notion of someone “liking” or “enjoying” this show seems absurd. The truths that it tackles are true, regardless of our reaction to them.