Because theater in ancient Greece was all about language and subtext, rather than spectacle and show, those who direct modern productions of the classics must create ways to keep the audience engaged. And focused on the richness of the story, the message, and the language itself.
First produced in 431 BC, Medea was written by the classical tragedian Euripides, based on the mythological tale of the hero Jason (of Argonauts fame) and his wife, the title character.
Jason is a hero; Medea, when she is spurned by her husband, is consumed by madness and seeks revenge.
Kevin Gavin, who teaches Latin at Savannah Country Day School, is directing a contemporary Medea —under his 4th World Theater banner — at Muse Arts Warehouse.
"It presents a specific kind of challenge — there were no stage directions," he says. "It was just chanted by people wearing masks. So all the meaning is on the language.
"And I wanted to do that — but at the same time, it's so formal, and so conventionalized, that if you did it the way it was presented then, it would be too stiff for a modern audience. They're not really going to respond to that."
At the same time Gavin — whose last directorial assignment was a 1995 Roundhouse Railroad Museum production of Marat/Sade — knew he needed to make his Medea attractive to, well, younger (and non-Athenian) audiences. At least those who generally don't spend much quality time with classical Greek theater.
"What I wanted to do was be faithful to that original intent as much as we could," he explains. "There are long set pieces, and the audience has to pay attention to some extent. But to keep them from being fatigued, or just non-plussed, we have these experimental choral interludes.
"The Greek had songs, and the chorus would filter what was going on onstage for the audience, but we're opening up that space to new things."
There is a "Greek chorus" — on the stage, as always, to comment and pass judgment on the dramatic proceedings — but this Medea is also augmented with multi-media installations by SCAD student Lubomir Kocka, live electronic music from Electric Grandma, recitations and choreography.
"It's a way to not just break it up, but to present another layer of meaning for the audience to deal with," Gavin says. "You're asking them to think, but you're also asking them to be open to the emotional power of the play."
The role of Medea is considered the strongest in the classical Greek repertoire for women. Gavin says he was inspired to take on the project after a chance meeting with actress Anna Burrell, who'd co-starred in his Marat/Sade all those years ago.
Gavin considers Burrell the finest dramatic actress in Savannah, and when she agreed to do Medea, he set about landing her Marat/Sade co-star Jim Morekis (the editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah) to play Jason, as well as J.R. Roberts and Adam Bailey as Creon and Aegeus, respectively.
"So we're bringing the talent and experience together with the youthful energy," Gavin smiles.
With cryptic anti-war messages interwoven between the lines of personal and social upheaval, Medea is a "talky" play; indeed, points out the director, that's key.
"It sounds very often like a court case," Gavin says. "And this is intentional. There's an agon, a contest of speeches, between Medea and Jason. It's all about competing discourses, and it's very much like a court of law.
"His discourse is economic prosperity. He's arguing that what he was doing, by taking a second wife, was good for the family by providing for them with more money. And her argument is all about emotions and affection, 'How can you do this to me?' Both of them have claims to rightness. So the audience is in the position of the jury."