Medea in Kolchis

April 27, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

Last Thursday I saw a production of Robert Duncan’s Medea in Kolchis as part of the Poetry Project’s Robert Duncan Symposium. I loved it. We had to RSVP to get the address–an empty where house space across the street from The Hideout. The room was empty, about 20 people came. Being a spring evening it was quite cold. We sat in an assortment of folding chairs in the center of the otherwise plain space. And then, the players came out–I made some video clips of the evening and you might get a sense for things.

You might ask what the play is about. The truth is, I’m not exactly sure. I don’t know that I was supposed to understand that, even. I think instead I was there to absorb an impression, to take on the intuitions of performance and language. I know it is about a king (Arthur, played by Sandra Lim) who is interested in fiction. He names his daughter (who I think is played by 2 women–Monica Fambrough & Sara Gothard, though only ever referred to as 1) Medea and is always waiting for a “Jason” to come and take her hand. Arthur has fabricated an object he calls the golden fleece. He is a poet at the end of his life. Central to the play is the wonderfully lascivious nursemaid, Garrow, (played by John Beer, who also directed the piece), she goes between all of the characters serving them in their needs as much as she functions as the meta-glue between the play’s movements; a regular discussion of her age and the romantic exploits of her youth make into a kind of time signature for the whole piece. Jason (played by Patrick Culliton) arrives with whom I think is his tutor, The Doctor (Travis Nichols) who seems to represent a hard-fast reason, arguing against the self-indulgent Arthur. Doctor point’s to the way in which Arthur manipulates the people around him in order to make poems out of them. Jason as though to comiserate says, (what made me laugh out loud) “I don’t think [Arthur] likes my poetry.” Meantime the doctor continues to woo (and fail) and old flame, Edna (Nicole Wilson) who has terrific intuitions and believes in mystical things–I felt like her character probably listened to some combination of Joanna Newsom and Animal Collective–wanted Romance, not love (an interesting and curious distinction). The performers read from their scripts and sometimes read from cards, reflecting Duncan’s discussion of self-awareness (i.e. the emperor as one who makes fiction into real life in order to mythologize his experience). As you’ll see from the following clip, Arthur does a good job of his stretching exercises, what all emperors should do when imparting truth onto youths.

One of my favorite moments was when all the performers read their different lines out loud, at once, different characters overlapping cacuaphony and intermittent silence. At any rate, Medea (only ever dressed in white night dresses–one of them victorian, the other a kind of sweatshirt/cotton–the ruffles on the victorian one created a kind of focal point for me, which I found interesting to think about, i.e. what does it mean if a woman’s nightdress is a focal point in a play, especially if the surrounding action is so much larger and maybe that’s what those victorian ruffles were always supposed to do), falls for Jason and wants to seduce/marry him, Garrow tells them that in order to do so Jason must kill the serpant, Jason wants the golden fleece and in order to get the golden fleece must kill the emperor (Arthur), except he can’t at the last minute and so Medea kills him (Arthur/her father) instead. In the end, the Doctor tries to get back with Edna who refuses because he does not believe and cannot relate to her terrific imagination.  It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Victorian nightdress was the only focal point. Garrow was another, perhaps more obvious, counterpoint–and perfectly suited, I think, as the cross-dressing old wo/man, kind of like a sexy Tieresias, who’s experience and exploits and dark dress contrast with Medea’s own Virgin Suicide innocence.

Can you believe that this all happened in a tiny, unknown, cold little room in the city? It’s amazing! I love these sorts of situations because they seem to bring work I would not otherwise see to life–this kind of project seems very like the apartment gallery project, where much work goes into it, and the payoff comes in the sense of community and creative expression that results in an instant, i.e. the instant that the public sees the performance, (or art). There is no measurable affect that endures beyond that moment…it’s brilliant, I think. And always makes me very happy.