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Review by Chad Jones for Oakland Tribune / ANG Newspapers

Shotgun Players fill UC Theatre with grand, ghoulish 'Medea'

three [1/2] stars Frightfully good

By Chad Jones

Here in the Bay Area, you'll find a ballet and two plays devoted to her. You might say we're living in a "Medea"-saturated world.

The San Francisco Ballet just opened "Damned," a dance version of Euripides' 2,400-year-old revenge drama. And both the Butterfield 8 company of Walnut Creek and Berkeley's Shotgun Players are performing Robinson Jeffers' wonderfully accessible 1947 free adaptation of the play.

For shotgun, not into its 10th anniversary season, the play is an inspired choice. Ferocious, juicy and even funny, "Medea" brings out the best in this intrepid company.

This was to have been the second production in Shotgun's new downtown Berkeley theater space. But permit problems forced the company to be creative in securing a temporary venue.

In the case of "Medea," the search has ended in an ideal space. The play began performances last weekend at the UC Theatre, an 85-year-old theater in downtown Berkeley. Suitably chilly and adorned with appropriate Greek Revival-style adornments, the cavernous space is perfect for this highly theatrical endeavor.

All but 150 of the theater's 1,300 seats are roped off, and set designer Melpomene Katakalos has opted to create her own round performance platforms rather than use the theater's built-in stage.

The production's abundant stage smoke swirls around the stage and then hangs almost motionless in the still air of the UC as if in preparation for the evil to come.

Heather Basarab's lights play up the full melodramatic feel of the production. She casts much of her light from below, creating shadows on faces, on the curtains behind the stage on the ceiling far above.

Adding to the gothic creepiness of the shadows is the eerie organ score by Don Seaver (and performed by Seaver himself on an old-fashioned reed organ at Monday night's performance).

With the audience primed for "The Phantom of the Opera" meets Greek tragedy, director Russell Blackwood goes to work.

Though faithful to the text and spirit of Euripides, Blackwood manages to have some fun with "Medea." We know that the wronged Medea will kill her two sons in retaliation for her husband Jason's infidelity. It's how you get there that makes it interesting.

Ghoulish and grandiose, Shotgun company member Beth Donohue gives us a Medea that is equal parts Joan Crawford, Norma Desmond and Judi Dench.

We first hear Medea off stage screaming "Death!" and "Destruction!" Then, after her grand entrance, she puts on a show both for us and for the people she sucks in to her psychotic revenge machinations.

Donohue is a classic Medea, an actress in love with <cm, ital>acting<cm,endital> and a character relishing each morsel of pain she endures and inflicts. Smart and unhinged, Donohue throws herself into the role, yet in her frenzy, she manages to connect with the primal force and horror of her bloody deeds. When she calls her sons "my little ponds of agony," she inspires a laugh and a cringe.

When she says "Hate is a bottomless cup, and I will pour and pour," you believe her.

If you've got a strong Medea, you've got a show, but the supporting performers here are also strong. The chorus _ Kenya Briggs, Bekka Fink and Nina Auslander _ sing some wonderful harmonies as they attempt to interject some lovey-dovey sentiments into Medea's nightmarish spiral.

With their blue lips and highly floral outfits (wonderfully trashy music video costumes by Keiko Shimosato) the chorus members are good for some laughs and some serious music.

Suzanne Voss has one of the more difficult roles in a tragedy _ she's the woman who wails almost non-stop. But Voss, who comes across as a warm, caring person, is up to the challenge.

As Jason, of the Golden Fleece fame, Jason Frazier is believably callous before he becomes a simpering wreck of a man, and Michael Carreiro, as Ageus, gets some nice laughs when he gets suckered into granting Medea asylum in Athens.

Not too brainy, not too garish, Shotgun's "Medea" is just right. As Medea herself says, "We must not think too much. We go mad if we think too much."

You can e-mail Chad Jones at or call (925) 416-4853.



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