Arts & Culture, Video

‘Medea’ brings ancient feud to Brown

Celeste Cahn ’15 reinterprets classic Greek tragedy in PW Downspace this weekend

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2014

From the lofty parapet of Mount Olympus to the tortured currents of the River Styx, the gods have no fury like a woman scorned.

None, at least, like the woman in “Medea,” directed by Celeste Cahn ’15 and opening tonight in the PW Downspace. The play was translated and freely adapted by Robinson Jeffers from Euripides’ classical Greek tragedy of betrayal and revenge.

Audiences familiar with “Othello” will recognize basic structural similarities with the Shakespearean play. The exotic Medea, played by Alejandra Rivera Flavia ’14, is both the Desdemona and the Othello of her own story. She has left her home country to marry Jason, played by Emma Johnson ’14 — the show has a primarily female cast, reversing the traditionally all-male casting of Greek theater. But after Jason leaves her for the daughter of the king of Corinth, Medea mirrors Iago’s thirst for bloody retribution.

A chorus of women, played by Natalie McDonald ’15, Rihana President ’17 and Haley Schwartz ’17, allegorizes the collective values of Greek society. Through their dialogue with Medea and gossip with one another, the women reveal their suspicion toward Medea’s ethnicity and her practices with drugs and herbs.

Flavia is an enchantress, immersing herself in the enigmatic and irreducible tensions of her character. Her large, expressive eyes convey a volatile mental state, quivering like a cornered animal for a moment before resuming a dark glitter of malice and contempt. Even as she collapses and wails in despair, her mind visibly whirs with the ornate machinations of her deadly scheme. And while she argues her case with clarity, her expression hints at churning interior entropy barely kept in check by her outward composure.

Johnson’s icy, detached performance sharply juxtaposes against Medea’s heated passion, and she executes Jason’s obnoxious snobbery with wit and precision.

Because of her character’s duplicity, audiences are forced to continually reassess whether Medea is the protagonist or antagonist, rational or insane — and whether the source of her downfall can be attributed to a flawed society or just her own internal pathology. As she spins an intricate web of vengeance around herself and the Corinthian court, these categories become increasingly fluid to the point of dissolution.

The chorus members also serve as bodily instruments, conveying the dynamics between Medea and society. The chorus circles her ominously, like vultures around a fresh carcass, during the moments when she is overtaken by grief. But as she conspires to rebuild her shattered dignity, the tables turn: Instead, it is she who prowls slowly around the cluster of chorus members, sliding into the spaces they leave unguarded and dismantling their formation.

When the lifespan of a play outlasts the civilization it mimics, it doesn’t so much hold a mirror up to its audience but rather a lens into an extinct world. Do not assume that millennia of history have infused “Medea” with the sanctity of a relic: The lifeblood of desecration coursing through the play’s ancient vena cava is as turgid and potent today as it was in its 431 BC debut.


“Medea” runs tonight at 8 p.m., tomorrow at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. and Sunday and Monday at 8 p.m. in the PW Downspace.


A previous version of this article mistakenly criticized Emma Johnson ’14 for putting on a British accent in character. In fact, it is the actress’ real accent. The Herald regrets the error.


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  1. Jus' sayin. says:

    Just a quick note–Emma Johnson’s accent is not a fake British accent. She’s from Malta. That’s actually her accent.

    • lolEmmaJean says:

      Yeah, not everyone has to have an american accent…

      • The author made a mistake, don’t turn it into something its not. Everyone makes mistake. Hanna Montana has a song about it.

  2. anachronista says:

    Dear Herald, personally, I find the comparison being drawn between Medea and Iago to be more alarming and misplaced than the criticism of Johnson for putting on a British accent in character.

  3. A little late? says:

    Oh…fight the ancient greek patriarchy with a primarily female cast this time around. So edgy and powerful

  4. i thought the British accent was great, possibly even “intentional”. It gave a sense of royalty to her character. Well casted and acted. The translation was good, too, made it easy to follow, though I kind of wonder what I missed once I read that it was a loose translation.

  5. RebeccaCityofLadies says:

    Medea is the Othello, Desdemona, and Iago of the story…so basically what you’re saying is that it doesn’t parallel Othello at all.

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