Oh “Medea,” you’re such a tough play to watch. I don’t think you can spoil a 2,446-year-old play, but — SPOILER ALERT — a bunch of people die, nobody wins and everyone ends up in abject misery.
So it’s a good thing the talented cast of Savage Rose Classical Theatre Company‘s production of “Medea” are top-notch grievers. Director Rachel Joy Vidal stacked the deck with high-quality actors from the title character right down to the two young children in the cast.
“Medea” is the most frequently performed Greek play, largely because of its feminist appeal.
The play picks up just as the mythological Jason of the Argonauts has married the young, beautiful daughter of King Creon, much to the chagrin of his original wife, Medea. In the past, Medea had abandoned her homeland, killed her brother and left behind bad blood to help Jason during his quest for the Golden Fleece. Without her, he would never have made it. And now, he’s left her for someone younger and prettier. So Medea seeks revenge.
Although she’s worked in professional and community theater all of her adult life, Kristie Rolape, who plays Medea, has been doing comedy for the past 10 years or so. I was a huge fan of the late, great Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble of which she was a co-producing artistic director. I’ve seen her sing and dance; I’ve seen her play everything from a ditzy Derby belle to Punch and Judy’s baby. But this performance was extraordinary. You don’t get much more devoid of comedy than “Medea,” yet Rolape managed to elicit a couple laughs and sympathetic chuckles.
Playing the character of Medea can easily lead to scenery-chewing, and Rolape’s performance walks right up to the edge of that and stops. Her emotions are on fire, whether it’s rage or grief or heartbreak, but it never feels like they overstep plausible extremes. She also has a very strong voice that helps Medea take up space. She’s not a frail, weak-hearted victim by any means — she has power.
The play opens with a monologue by the Nurse, played by Rena Cherry Brown, who is another strong woman. Cherry Brown set the bar high for the rest of the cast. Because she’s a servant, she must follow Medea’s orders, no matter how awful, but every measure of pain, anger and grief registered in her movement and bearings.
Robert Thompson is a revelation as Jason. Thompson has been on Louisville stages for years now, but this was the first time I’ve seen him perform. Jason is likely the most challenging role he’s ever tackled, and he nailed it. Like Rolape, he also commands the stage both with his voice and comportment. It’s not hard to understand why this Jason has driven Medea so close to madness. He uses his sensuality to manipulate; he’s a man who wants it all.
There’s a scene where Jason and Medea rage at each other. It’s cringeworthy in its familiarity and is likely to remind you of a massive clash you’ve had with your (probably former) partner. The kind where, mid-argument, you’re thinking to yourself, “Why am I behaving like a crazy person?” right as you escalate the argument from bad to worse. Again, director Vidal has made all this seem plausible.
The supporting cast was also strong. The Chorus of Corinthian women spoke largely as one. I applaud the inclusion of a child, Kinsey McClure, a 6-year-old who appeared with her mother Erica. Her presence made everything just a tiny bit sadder. I hope Vidal will chip in for therapy if need be.
My only beef was with the set, which the director designed. The broken columns (if this is Ancient Greece, those columns wouldn’t be broken, would they?) felt too “Olan Mills photo shoot.”
Overall, productions by Savage Rose are almost always a good bet. And this one is a sure bet.
Remaining shows are Sept. 24-27 at Vault 1031, at 1031 S. Sixth St. You should probably make a reservation; there were few open seats at Monday’s show.