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MEDEA

Adapted by Robinson Jeffers

from the play by Euripedes

Directed by Miles Potter

Starring Seana McKenna

Produced by David Mirvish and the Manitoba Theatre Centre

At the Canon Theatre in Toronto

***

A good production of a Greek tragedy makes you appreciate how awfully overrated surprise and suspense can be.

If you know anything about Medea, it's probably that she murders her own children to spite her husband. The best attribute of Seana McKenna's third stab at the classic role is that she keeps you believing that she might come to her senses and spare her sons, even though you know full well that it has been a filicidal fait accompli for almost 2,500 years.

Directed by Miles Potter, McKenna's performance in this Mirvish/Manitoba Theatre Centre co-production is not a showy star turn. Her Medea is full of irony and humour and is, over all, quite earthbound in her grief. While this makes her eventual use of witchcraft disorienting, it does make her character more relatable. She gets the audience, or at least half of it, on her side early on by noting that bearing a child is about three times as painful as going forth in battle, and she keep us there right up until she does her evilest deed. It's at this point that there's a genuine conflict in the audience, an unsettling challenge to our assumptions about victims and perpetrators.

If anything, Potter's production makes Medea seem too much of a sympathetic underdog early in the play, brushing over the fact that she, you know, murdered and dismembered her brother and is the granddaughter of the friggin' sun.

Her adversaries don't seem like much of a challenge at first: Nigel Bennett's King Creon - who banishes Medea and her sons after her husband, Jason, marries his daughter - is an erratic flip-flopper, while Michael Spencer-Davis's Theseus is a real pushover.

Scott Wentworth's Jason, meanwhile, is preening and smug. When he notes that Medea only ever really loved him because Aphrodite cast a spell on her, he makes it seem like a cruel and untrue jab - even though that's what the myths say. (The gods exist uneasily in this psychological production.) The main issue with this portrayal is: If Jason's such a bastard and Medea is not under Aphrodite's spell, why is she so torn up by his betrayal?

And yet McKenna and Wentworth's fantastic chemistry makes these concerns easy to overlook. The last time I saw the two sparring, in 2004, it was in another Manitoba Theatre Centre production, Much Ado About Nothing, also directed by Potter; their love affair ended a lot better that time.

Elsewhere, Patricia Conolly is spectacular as Medea's nurse, her wistful opening monologue immediately pulling you deep into the story and into the poetry of Robinson Jeffers's 1946 adaptation. Conolly shared the high moment of the play with McKenna, when the nurse relates the horror of watching the princess and Creon devoured by flames as Medea eats up every gruesome detail.

There is no over-the-top lamentation from the power-packed chorus, which includes Shaw Festival stars Claire Jullien and Deborah Hay. (Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein once collaborated on a spoof of Medea in which the chorus wails: "Stop the insanity! You can eat one slice of cheese, or 16 baked potatoes. Make up your mind!")

I can't say I'm that big a fan of the mildly ludicrous set and costumes that Peter Hartwell has designed around the actors, however. Medea looks one of those giant-robed, long-haired elders who might crop up on Star Trek; it doesn't help that instead of having Helios's chariot arrive for her get-away at the end, she's beamed up, Scotty-style. As for why Jason first appears looking like Pepe le Pew dressed up as the Karate Kid, search me.

An unnecessarily spectacular burst of flames symbolizing the deaths of Creon and his daughter elicited inappropriate applause from the audience. But the only design element that was seriously distracting was the portentous sound and music, for which I suppose sound designer Peter McBoyle and composer Michael Becker must share the blame. When percussive thriller music began to underscore Medea as she ran around the stage, lit from below like a horror movie, I got the giggles. Aside from that moment of suspended belief, I was fully engulfed in the tragedy.

Medea continues until Feb. 8.