December 14 2019
ASHLAND, Oregon - Medea, Macbeth, Cinderella (MMC) is like nothing you have ever seen. Imagine watching three separate plays unfold at the same time. Mind-blowing? Confusing? In fact, this ambitious production is a sensational tour de force. The fact that it elicits extreme reactions is proof that it is powerful art, as the object of art is to evoke a reaction.
The 2012 Oregon Shakespeare Festival performance of MMC is the culmination of three decades of professional refinement. The writer and director, Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director at OSF, wrote the unique script as an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1980s. He directed it at Harvard in 1984, then in LA at the Cornerstone Theatre Company in 1992, and finally at Yale Repertory in 2002. The 2012 OSF production brings the kind of professional expertise to the acting, set, music, and costumes that are required to make this play sing.
The play was conceived by taking the actual words and plots of the original scripts, and quite literally presenting them simultaneously. But the latest performance at OSF is a symphony, with each of the plays representing a different instrumental section, and the resulting rhythm is at times comical, at others dark, and at all times fascinating. The innocent and childlike music of the Rodger's and Hammerstein score that accompanies Cinderella contrasts with the original and dissonant music for the chorus in Medea, and both provide the linkage to keep the whole ensemble moving together like a complex dance.
This performance is a challenge to traditional dramaturgy on many levels. Most tragi-comedies present the comic and tragic moments in different scenes and acts, but MMC is unique in that these same emotions are conjured often at the very same moment. The juxtaposition of three plays that seem so different on the stage at the same time produces interesting synchronicities and dissonances. The primary themes of love, marriage, parenthood, and ambition overlap all three plays, but they are developed in very different ways. Seeing the apparently innocent Cinderella singing "In My Own Little Corner," while watching Medea rage against the faithlessness of men, and Lady Macbeth telling Macbeth that she would dash her nursing child's head against a rock if she had once promised to do so, is chilling. But it also helps you see that perhaps the innocence of Cinderella is naïve, or worse yet, an act. We forgive and even approve of the social climbing that Cinderella seeks, but we condemn as wicked and unnatural the human emotions of ambition when openly and directly voiced by a woman such as Medea or Lady Macbeth. The way that power is gendered is further dramatized in this performance as all the cast in Medea are women, in Macbeth men, and in Cinderella mixed. You will be surprised in the first act as the actors are so successful at playing the opposite gender that many spectators will be deceived. Christopher Liam Moore has played Lady Macbeth in every staging of this show and once again was brilliant. The actresses playing men in Medea are assisted by the aid of Greek masks, but still, Lisa Wolpe portrays the weak-willed Jason with a feminine quality that also is appropriate for the character. Medea, played powerfully and beautifully by Miriam Laube, is more man than Jason, with a deep but sensual voice. In the second act, the costumes, masks, and wigs come off, creating momentary confusion as you struggle to identify the characters. This challenges your intellect to keep the three plays separate, as one way the production visually conveys difference is through costuming. But this prop is taken away in the second act and most of the cast appear in plain, black robing. Some will find this confusing and pointless. But since gender construction as it relates to power is the dominant theme, it makes sense. We now see the characters as they truly are. There is no more disguise. The play seems to be saying that what we really are will leak through and become visible, and gender and social class are just illusions that mask our true natures.
The acting is supreme and there isn't one false note in the whole play. Laura Griffith's lovely voice as Cinderella keeps belting out strong and sentimental songs, one after another, even as the tragedies unfold right next to her. Jeffrey King's Macbeth is strong. And the glue that helps to link the three plays together is provided by the comic antics of the Usher, Mark Bedard, who both stands outside of all three plays and yet at key moments enters into them. If the theater is an imaginary space where the real and imaginary are blurred, then the Usher's role is to remind us that what we are seeing is a spectacle and to guide both the characters and the audience through this experience.
The ending is enigmatic and compelling. As all three plays approach their conclusion, the Usher creates a magical space with a rope where first Medea, then Cinderella, and finally Macbeth are able to see the stage as the audience sees it. It is a magical barrier where the other characters may not pass and where the action in all three plays may be observed. Finally, the three central characters seem to give each other strength to finish off their respective plays as they speak their lines in unison and then step out back into the action. This gives a sense of the three plays coming together and helps the audience see how similar the characters are by the sympathy they show each other.
Sophisticated audiences will find that they can appreciate three different stories simultaneously. I applaud the whole cast, the musicians, the crew who created a fantastic spectacle, and above all, Bill Rauch, for challenging my assumptions and intellect. Rauch is a genius and deserves Tony award recognition for this amazing play.
Show is open until November 3. Tickets may be ordered online at www.osfashland.org, or call ticket office at (800) 219-8161
Photo: Medea, Macbeth, Cinderella