The Sum of Three Plays Is Some Whole
Adapted by Bill Rauch and Tracy Young from Euripides (Paul Roche translation) with music and lyrics by Shishir Kurup)/William Shakespeare/Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Angus Bowmer Theatre, Ashland, Ore.
Friday, August 17, 2012, F–2&4, middle orchestra
Directed by Bill Rauch and Tracy Young
This is the damnedest thing I ever did see.
Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella is all three plays running simultaneously. Before we discuss the merits of what’s become known at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as MMC or, simply, “the mash-up,” I need to explain it—or try to, anyway.
From left, Macbeth (Jeffrey King with a dagger), Cinderella (Laura Griffith with a paring knife) and Medea (Miriam A. Laube with a dagger) in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's productoin of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
MMC grew out of a pronouncement Bill Rauch, then a student at Harvard, heard from Harvard theater director Peter Sellars that the three great movements in Western drama were Greek tragedy, Elizabethan theater, and the Broadway musical. As a student project, Rauch identified the most influential practitioners of each era—Euripides, Shakespeare, and Rodgers & Hammerstein—and meshed together a significant product from each: respectively, Medea, Macbeth, and, for some reason, the frothiest of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals, Cinderella. At various stops along his career, Rauch has remounted the production, and with collaborator Tracy Young has further honed it and added a score for the Medea element. Now artistic director at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Rauch is staging the fourth iteration of this thing for OSF’s mostly forgiving audiences. It’s heading to BAM in Brooklyn after its run in Ashland.
In saying that the three plays run simultaneously is not to say that everybody talks over each other; nor are the three plays layered one upon the other or set side by side like a three-ring circus. Rather, their scripts weave in and out of each other in the same space, with two and sometimes three scenes and speeches unfolding at the same time. The highlight of this device is when Medea contemplates a course of murder to revenge her ex-husband Jason as Macbeth awaits the signal to kill Duncan. Medea plays with a dagger as she speaks her soliloquy, holding it out to her side. “Is this a dagger which I see before me, the handle toward my hand?” Macbeth says. “Come, let me clutch thee.” But Medea, now continuing with her soliloquy, turns away, and once she finishes her next couple of lines, Macbeth continues his soliloquy. “I have thee not, and yet I see thee still,” he says as the dagger hovers in Medea’s hand across the stage. The only overlapping of texts is similar lines among the plays, spoken simultaneously, and portions of the songs played quietly as background music to another play’s scenes.
Each play’s chief characters do only their parts: Medea (Miriam A. Laube) along with Jason (Lisa Wolpe), Nurse (Dee Maaske), and the Chorus Leader (Kate Mulligan); the Macbeths (Jeffrey King and Christopher Liam Moore, who has played Lady Macbeth in every version of Rauch’s play) along with Banquo (Ted Deasy), Macduff (Al Espinosa), Duncan (Armando Durán), Malcolm (Daniel José Molina), and the witches (Daniel T. Parker, U. Jonathan Toppo, and Eddie Lopez); Cinderella (Laura Griffith) along with her Stepmother (Robin Goodrin Nordli) and stepsisters (Nell Geisslinger and Kate Hurster), Godmother (K.T. Vogt), the Prince (Jeremy Peter Johnson), the King (Robert Vincent Frank), and Queen (Vilma Silva). However, key scenes in each play will take over the whole stage and the whole cast, too. The Macbeths and Medea sing and dance about the announcement that the Prince is hosting a ball. Jason and Cinderella’s Stepmother attend Macbeth’s feast when he sees Banquo’s ghost, and they also play two of the witches’ apparitions. A dead Banquo, zombie-like, twice dances with Cinderella’s Stepmother at the ball, and later she mentions the man she danced with all night.
Such correlative lines and other such moments generate laughs: Macbeth seeing Medea’s dagger in his famous speech, Cinderella’s wicked Stepmother popping up from the witches’ cauldron to tell Macbeth that “none of woman born shall harm” him (heightening our surprise at her appearance here is the fact that Macduff himself played the first apparition). Whether you think these moments clever or silly depends on the degree of your appreciation of the whole enterprise. However, whether intentionally funny or not, none of these moments are played for laughs. Key to the whole working as one is that the actors treat the whole as one play. So, no actors mug when a character from another play intrudes on their scene, nobody looks askance at the zombie showing up at the ball; Nordli simply dances with Deasy as if it were normal stage business. Medea, in her own scene, is ever aware that Duncan is in his own scene right next to her, and kings and queens in all three plays casually change places on the thrones.
Props also move seamlessly from one play to another. The same cup of tea is sipped by both the Stepmother and Medea. A broom used by Medea’s nurse ends up in Cinderella’s hands. Macbeth’s witches use the Godmother’s magic wand. Cinderella cleans Duncan’s bloody crown (and hands it to Malcolm). Cinderella’s cape at the ball becomes the poisoned gown Medea uses to kill Creon’s daughter. You can guess what happens to Fleance’s mice.
Why? Well, why not? You can sit back and enjoy the coincidences of scripts and the happenstances that sometimes seem no more interrelated than The Wizard of Oz does with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This could simply be an exercise in absurdist theater, and that’s OK. After all, one of my favorite lines in all of cinema is “There's a tiny door in that empty office … It takes you inside John Malkovich. You see the world through John Malkovich's eyes, then, after about 15 minutes, you're spit out into a ditch on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike.” While that line from the movie Being John Malkovich is absolutely absurd, we experience it as both absurd and truth when John Cusack’s character speaks it because we’ve experienced exactly what he says.
Some of that sensation is happening in MMC. The Medea-Macbeth dagger scene, for example, is operating on three planes at once: Medea, Macbeth, and your intellect experiencing both plays—and every past experience you've had with each play—as one play. These planes tilt and touch and sometimes pass through each other and sometimes blend. It’s not so much absurdist theater as it is hallucinogenic theater. Furthermore, if you’ve noticed, the two lead characters in that scene are both contemplating committing murder. The soliloquies are thematically linked just as the dagger provides a visual link.
Hitching Cinderella in this way to two blood tragedies rather than any of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s other, heavier works (say, Carousel) seems a head-scratcher before you enter the theater. However, the string of imagery shared by the three plays soon become obvious: step sisters in Cinderella and weird sisters in Macbeth (and, along with the Stepmother, the one threesome in overblown fairy-tale wear contrasts with the filthily ragged other threesome); killing innocent children in Medea and Macbeth; the role of magic (Cinderella’s Godmother even serves as Hecate); the royal decrees that set each of the plots in motion (Creon marries his daughter to the already married Jason, Duncan names Malcolm his heir instead of Macbeth, the King and Queen force their son to host a ball in order to find a suitable bride).
A subtler thematic link is the notion of ambition. All three plays deal with it in various weights and from different aspects. The Macbeths want the crown and, when prompted by the weird sisters, will kill rather than wait to get it. Medea is so hurt by Jason’s betrayal she wants nothing more than his total desolation, and she not only will kill his new bride and father-in-law but her own sons born to Jason to gain her revenge. And sweet, innocent Cinderella, languishing in neglect and slavery, dreams of being, at least, the belle of the ball, if not a princess. While the Macbeths discuss the prospect of killing Duncan while he's a guest in their castle, Cinderella and her Godmother talk and sing of wishes coming true.
The three-level stage, designed by Rachel Hauck, visually carries out this image of ambition. At the top are two thrones; in the middle, a ramp bends around to the left and a stairway leads to Medea’s doorway on the right; on the lower stage in the far left corner sits Cinderella’s chair by the kitchen window. The Macbeths, Malcolm, Jason, and the King, Queen, and Prince all move among the three levels; Cinderella ascends from lower left to upper right at play’s end.
All of the weird sisters of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella combine to cook the potion in the cauldren. In front are Cinderella's Stepsisters (Kate Hurster and Nell Geisslinger), in back Macbeth's witches (Eddie Lopez, Daniel T. Parker, U. Jonathan Toppo). Photo by Jenny Graham, Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
But by this ending, all of the actors are out of costume. Starting with Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalk, the players one by one discard their particular play’s clothes (all eye-popping creations by designer Deborah M. Dryden) and finish out the play in black shirts and pants or dresses, and sans makeup. The three plays fully blend together in their big finales—Jason discovering to his horror Medea’s murder of their children, Macduff killing Macbeth and giving the crown to Malcolm, and the Prince fitting the glass slipper on Cinderella and her becoming a real princess—and for one brief point the three title characters end up in a circle together, acknowledge each other, and then swap lines. Medea, Macbeth, and Cinderella become interchangeable.
What all this means, I haven’t a clue. I was following it all pretty well (I’m not familiar with Medea) but started having trouble keeping up with who was who when they were out of costume and fake blonde Cinderella became a real brunette. Perhaps the point of all this was to illustrate the three characters as three sides of the same person.
Another possibility is that MMC is less about three characters and their stories than it is about three eras of theater and their combined impact on and reflection of our society. The show begins with a theater usher (Mark Bedard), who takes up various roles in all three plays. Then, at the end, instead of watching characters, we are watching actors speaking and moving as characters, and Bedard, again, as the usher. We aren’t watching just a play or even three plays; we are watching theater.
To pull off such a production successfully requires an incredibly talented ensemble of actors, and every member of that ensemble has to bring all their powers of concentration. I nevertheless want to point out one performance in particular, that of Jeffrey King as Macbeth. His was one of the finest portrayals of the murderous Scot I’ve ever seen, a bully of a man and clearly ambitious from the beginning. Perhaps trimming his part to fit into the three-play structure honed the character, but King’s Macbeth shows little milk of human kindness (Lady Macbeth is the one who accuses him of that, but Moore’s Lady was so determinedly ambitious she’d consider Godzilla a wimp). The only hesitation Macbeth has is committing the sin of killing a guest in his home, which, for Macbeth, is on par with Medea killing her own children. Morality is, in fact, a key element of Macbeth's constitution, and that being true profoundly illustrates the depths to which his ambition plumbs. Even after that ambition deprives him of sleep, he won’t let it go but tightens his grip.
So, mash-up though it may be, Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella gives us a solid Macbeth. For that matter, it gives us a haunting Medea, too. And I’m still singing “Do I Love You Because You’re Beautiful?” seven days later.
August 23, 2012