May 5, 2022
Heading to Trapdoor Theatre in Bucktown always feels like a totally Chicago adventure– you duck into a gangway between a restaurant and bar, open a door, sneak past a kitchen and open another door into an intimate world of experimental theatre sharing the experience of witnessing with a few other folks in the small black box. Trapdoor’s latest production: Medea Material is multi media art piece that revels in its place in the 20th century tradition of avant garde. Don’t go expecting a plot: Heiner Müller’s original script, translated here by Sarah Tolan-Mee, is a fragmentation of Euripedes’ words, and this self proclaimed danztheatre piece is a collage not a narrative. Highly visual, it begins on the Despoiled Shore: women in white dresses process past you to a small boat and are marooned. There are six Medeas and 3 Jasons, and at one point a Jason becomes a Medea and there are several sections where the Jasons become the Golden Fleece, or at least sheep headed men. The movement vocabulary is pedestrian– the ensemble are not dancers but movement actors, and there is a style of declamatory acting and audience confrontation that harkens to another era and time. We are witness to Medea’s pain and rage, to Jason’s charm and duplicitousness, but I recommend you bone up on your mythology before you attend to understand the story behind the living visual art piece you are experiencing.
Briefly Medea, granddaughter of the Sun God, helps Jason achieve the Golden Fleece, even murdering her own brother out of love for Jason. She bears him children but when they move to Corinth, Jason decides to marry the King’s daughter to cement his political future. Medea sends a gift to the bride to be: a poisoned gown, which kills her and the King when he tries to save his daughter. Then Medea murders her own children and flees, a heartbroken woman who probably has a few more tricks up her sleeve.
This version of the tragedy focuses intensely on payback time: over and over again Medea will remind Jason that he owes her a brother. But because we are viewers, witnesses to the impressions, we are not given a point of view that allows us much compassion for the deep primal emotions of Medea. And though having multiple Medeas allows us to intellectually connect with the tragedy, and see that every woman could be a Medea, choral protagonists give us distance to be unsympathetic. There is a certain distaste for actors in the script and so by corollary a plea for authenticity. The most quotable line of the night: Worse than death is to grow old. This material is rich in layers and connections to past and present. The advantage of the non narrative structure is that every audience member is free to interpret the bones of the story in a way most connected to their politics and proclivities.
There is a stark gorgeousness to this production. J Michael Griggs set design holds luminous surprises and draws effects from simple materials, and there is a lot of humor in Rachel Sypniewski's costuming. Max Truax and Claire Bauman have created a post-modern ballet of complexity and have conquered the limitations of the small space. It is an intellectual work as much as a kinetic one, and at 70 minutes with no intermission, leaves lots of time for a post-show conversation with any fellow witnesses.
Medea Material is running Thursdays through Sundays through June 4th at the Trapdoor Theatre, 1655 W Cortland Street in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood. For more information go to https://trapdoortheatre.com/