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Tradition has it that a director should never put a gun onstage unless it’ll be used by the final curtain. The Synetic Theater is offering a variation on that dictumnot guns but ropesin its uneven but visually ravishing Jason and the Argonauts.
Designer Georgi Alexi-Meskhishvili has festooned the Rosslyn Spectrum stage with a matrix of thick hemp cables, some dangling freely from the rafters, others angled tightly, one black, one red, and two at the very lip of the stage fastened together and pulled loosely into a broad U shape that forms a sort of inverted proscenium arch framing the action.
The ropes just hang there decoratively at first, but once the houselights dim, they become barriers and borders, hold up corpses, tie down prisoners, and lash Jason (Greg Marzullo) and his Argonaut warriors as they sail off to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. And wait ’til you see the use to which Medea puts a few of those ropes when it’s time to kill the kiddies.
Medea (Irina Tsikurishvili) is the witchy wife that Jason picks up on his quest, and she’s also the chief complicating factor in his return to favor in Greece. He ought to be coming home a hero, sheepskin in hand, but this barbaric beauty with whom he’s partnered gives his civilized countrymen enough pause that he becomes a pariah instead. Didn’t her ministering lead to an ailing king’s demise? Aren’t there rumors about the deaths of her own relatives when she abandoned them for Jason? And what about those strange incantations she keeps muttering and that whirling dance she breaks into when left on her own?
The mythical landscape of ancient Greece lends itself nicely to Synetic’s brand of surrealist stagecraft, a choreographed mix of balletic movement and vibrantly realized stage pictures with which the troupe has enlivened everything from slapsticky Russian film scripts to a wordless Hamlet. But in Jason and the Argonauts, the company is attempting a more ambitious blend of verbal and visual poetry, and the mix doesn’t, well, mix all that well.
Part of the problem is Suzen Mason’s less than colloquial adaptation of a 19th-century Austrian text by Franz Grillparzer, and part is the training of a company that has, up to now, concentrated more on graceful movement than on graceful diction. Happily, Marzullo’s tattooed, muscular Jason is as forceful a speaker as he is a fighter and lover, but he’s not representative of the babel of accents, amplified voice-overs, and verbal styles on display. In movement, the troupe is disciplined and all of a piece; in vocalizing, it still has a way to go. Not that the line “Greece, where every look is a genuine harbinger of a genuine feeling” would be likely to trip lightly off even the most highly trained tongue.
My guess is that a certain amount of vocal clumsiness might actually work for the productionGreek tragedy, after all, is not known for its sprightly phrasingbut when combined with stately, stylized movements, Synetic’s vocal and visual elements seem to be working at cross purposes. The dialogue gets ideas across quickly but sounds awkward, while the movement offers beauty and grace at the cost of slowing things down. With Paata Tsikurishvili’s two-hour-plus staging indulging itself with slow-motion effects and verbal pauses, the evening understandably has a sort of steeped-in-molasses feel.
Still, when Medea is looking deep inside a metallic globe and the director illustrates what’s seen therea thief racing away with the Golden Fleecethe effect is both stylish and to the point. And the evening’s concluding imagery, of Jason succumbing to madness after the deaths of his children, is as effective as anything the company has yet done. Sweeping arcs of passion are a Synetic specialty, and ask for a drowning, or a dungeon filled with rotting corpses, or rope tricks knotty enough to confound an Eagle Scout, and nobody blinks. Now it just needs to tie in the simple stuff.
Arena Stage is getting the visuals equally right in its attractively imagined Anna Christie. Lighting designer Michael Gilliam has seen to it that the sky is alive with color, sea greens to murky browns, and the air is thick with mist. Bill C. Ray’s weather-beaten planking proves persuasive both as a suds-laminated tavern floor and as the stained deck of a coal barge. The thick, sodden sweaters, coats, and overalls that costumer Linda Cho wraps around the play’s scruffy seafarers conjure a chilly New England autumn, and the seafarers themselves look as if they could weatherhave, in fact, already weatheredthe worst the sea has to throw at them.
The psychological world of the play is less persuasively conjured in Molly Smith’s intelligently conceived but only fitfully engaging staging. In fairness, that may be because psychology never interested Eugene O’Neill as much as the “old devil sea” that in his plays invariably had the power to destroy, cleanse, or somehow transform those who ventured out on it.
It’s the destructive power of the sea from which Swedish sailor Chris Christopherson (Kevin Tighe) was trying to protect his daughter, Anna (Sara Surrey), when he sent her off as a toddler to live in the Midwest. Her letter telling him that she’s coming to see him for the first time in nearly two decades fills him with such hope that he tries to sober up for her arrivala task at which he’s only partly successful. But that turns out to be a boon, because she’s hardly the sweet, innocent creature he’s pictured, and the booze allows him to slip past that fact. By the time he’s sober, she’s managed to exchange the scarlet shoes, come-hither lace, and rough language that served her well in a Midwestern brothel for the thicker attire and demeanor of a bargeman’s daughter.
“It makes me feel clean,” she says of the sea, as they float from New York to Provincetown, Mass. And though it seems to have scrubbed her of cynicism, her sense of reality remains: When her father pulls a handsome shipwrecked stoker named Mat (Dan Snook) from the waves and he falls hard for her, she keeps her story from him as well. The subterfuge can’t last, of course, and both father and swain are repulsed when they learn of her past.
Now, it’s clear from the reviews that in 1921, this chauvinism seemed reasonable to audiences and critics alikeAlexander Woollcott referred in the New York Times to Anna’s “heroic confession” of her past and sniffed at what he called the play’s “jovial ending.” But for the evening to work today, we need to see something besides pigheaded prejudice in the men’s reactions to Anna’s pastand something besides fortitude in Anna.
At Arena, the male leads make their respective takes on seaman braggadocio appealing enough when they’re treating the heroine as a lady: Tighe’s Chris is amusing when drunk, crafty when sober, and anxious to make up for being a failure as a father, while Snook brings charm and impetuosity to a romantic sentimentalist Anna accurately describes as “a big kid.” But both men look like unreconstructed jerks the moment they reject the title character. It’s easy to imagine a staging that treats all of them as deluded creatures of their time, conflicted over whether to give more weight to their own feelings or to social pressures, but at Arena, the men go along with the social pressures as a matter of course, and Surrey’s Anna seems to think that while that’s not fair, it’s also not unreasonable. She brings plenty of strength and certitude to Anna but barely a pinch of vulnerabilitywhich means she remains unfazed when the men keep delivering what ought to be crushing blows.
All of which may simply be the director’s 21st-century read on an 83-year-old melodrama, but it’s deflating nonetheless. A show about how a strong woman deals with a pair of clueless oafs simply isn’t going to be as compelling as a story about people struggling against expectations, both their own and their community’s. The show’s not dull, exactly, but neither does it sweep the audience up in a tide of feeling. And despite lots of smart work around the edgesan Eric Shim soundscape that somehow sounds moist, a lovely minor-key performance by Anne Scurria as an aging waterfront harlotthe world of the play only occasionally feels authentic. Would you have guessed that a whole change in lifestyle could be signaled by a change of shoes? Well, Smith has, and she uses it to make a complicated point wordlessly. But the shoes are just a marker for the lifestyle, not the real thing. It’s hard to imagine them ever getting wet in that old devil sea. CP