Nearly 2,500 years and a yawning cultural chasm separate the Athenian tragedies of Euripides from the American musicals of Stephen Sondheim. But anyone looking for proof that the raw materials and central concerns — even, to some extent, the techniques — of contemporary theatrical storytelling are connected to the past could find it on Louisville stages over the last couple of weeks.
In a delicious coincidence of scheduling, Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company offered a production of Euripides’ “Medea” (at Vault 1031) that ran on the same weekends as Pandora Productions’ revival of “Passion,” by Sondheim and James Lapine, at the Henry Clay.
In both plays, the driving character is a woman. “Medea” is Euripides’ provocative take on the story of a strong woman wronged. She’s a barbarian outsider whose beloved exploits her, then casts her aside in favor of another woman — and expects her to be grateful. Instead, in her obsession with vengeance, she engineers one of the most diabolical (and hyper-rational) revenge scenarios in all of Western literature, robs him of all he holds dear, and then simply escapes.
In Sondheim’s “Passion,” the central character is Fosca, a woman who was wronged long ago, and has sunk into a profound state of physical and psychological decay. Fosca, too, is living as an outsider — on a military outpost where her care-taking cousin is the commanding officer. When Fosca meets a handsome, idealistic soldier named Giorgio, she becomes obsessed with both him and with the idea of love. As the play proceeds, her very weakness becomes a powerful force as she carries out a guilelessly romantic — but perfectly effective — campaign to win Giorgio’s love.
Structurally, “Medea” is one of the simplest plays in the canon. It consists mostly of a series of one-on-one dialogues (with choral interjections) that set the backstory and carry the action in language that is filled with ideas, images and action. “Passion” is largely an epistolary musical (with choral interjections), where much of the action and ideas are revealed in a series of letters, performed as duets, between Giorgio and his sweetheart Clara, who, notwithstanding that she was Giorgio’s first lover, is, for Fosca, “the other woman.”
Both plays succeed or fail based on the portrayals of those central women — and in this case, both productions succeeded splendidly. Kristie Rolape played Medea with a subtle blend of savvy madness who could fawn and feign weakness when she needed to charm and manipulate the powerful men around her, but remained always in control of her wits — until she stood triumphant in her revenge.
In “Passion,” Annette McCulloch’s Fosca is first heard screaming offstage, then appears with the gaunt, haunted smile of a woman who can barely tolerate human interaction — but this too is a steely portrayal, and though Fosca seems a genuine romantic innocent, McCulloch finds ways to seed the landscape with kernels of doubt.
Apart from having in common a satisfying raw vitality (and featuring quite a few effective performers in the various ensembles), the two productions could hardly have been more different in terms of physical facilities and technical resources. The performance space for “Medea,” which was directed by Rachel Joy Vidal, with costumes by Kelly Moore and lights by Nick Dent, was a tightly packed (sold out) makeshift theater with ingenious DIY solutions to lighting and staging, and several noteworthy performances, especially from Rena Cherry Brown as the nurse who introduces the action and serves as a kind of moral arbiter; Robert Johnson as Jason, whose palpable grief and fury lend gravity to the closing scene, and charming young Chase Phillips as Pheres, whose fate as the son of Medea and Jason resonates across time.
Meanwhile, “Passion,” in the very well outfitted Henry Clay, was directed by Pandora’s Michael Drury, who consistently recruits outstanding casts and puts together some of the most ambitious and challenging productions in the city. Here, the musical score was performed by a live ensemble led by Doug Jones; sets were by Michael Hottois, lighting by Theresa Bagan, sound by Laura Ellis, and costumes by Lindsay Chamberlin (with some gowns on loan from the Stephen Foster Story). “Passion” is based on a challenging vocal score, and the stage was filled with exquisite voices, especially McCulloch whose throbbing vulnerability was perfect suited to Fosca; Andrew Newton (Giorgio); and Deborah Mae Hill (Clara), whose luminous tone served as a fine musical contrast to her rival’s. There are other fine performances here as well — Dale Strange, as the meddling physician whose machinations lead to a painful outcome, and Ken Robinson, as Fosca’s cousin, whose anguish and outrage are pivotal.
Regardless of the differences in settings and resources, though, these were two striking productions from independent local companies with a strong sense of mission and fine seasons planned for the remainder of the year.