(41) Days of Medea

(41) Days of Medea

Behind the Scenes of a Modern Greek Tragedy

Published on October 18, 2017

We begin our run as we always do: with a warm up. The cast and (some of) the crew of King’s Crown Shakespeare Troupe’s production of Medea are standing in a circle in Schapiro Lounge, which, unbeknown to those swiping into the building just outside, will soon become the site of a Greek tragedy.

Today, Oct. 15, the assistant directors—Mira Baum, a sophomore at Columbia College, and Nadya Shahd, a sophomore at Barnard—are leading the warm up. The wheeled chairs and couches of the lounge have been moved to clear space just next to the doors for what will be our stage for today. Baum starts, leading the circle of nine actors, Shahd, Persis Rao (Barnard sophomore and assistant stage manager) and Ally Han (Columbia College sophomore, stage manager) through some stretching. Then, a shakeout, in which everyone literally shakes out each of their limbs 10 times, then eight times, then six, four, two, and finally once, each round faster and louder than the last. The shakeout ends, as it usually does, in a round of cheering and laughter. Shahd does vocal work; after some enunciating (“Ha! Ka! Ga!”) and tongue twisters (“What-a-to do to die today at a minute or two ‘til two,” its opening line goes), they lead the cast through the singing of an Irish ballad, “Down by the Salley Gardens, my love and I did meet.”

The cast warms up before a rehearsal (Elza Bouhassira for Spectator)

Not everyone in the room is in the circle, though. The other assistant stage manager, Richie Ngo, a Columbia College sophomore, is watching from the side, as is the producer, Sophia Seidenberg, the set designer, Yisel Garcia, and an assistant producer, Mia Lindheimer, all of whom are currently juniors at Barnard. Asya Sagnak, the director, and also a junior at Barnard, is sitting in the lobby outside, taking a minute. All of us are waiting to watch the play’s first full run. Three days ago, on Thursday, we saw its first “stumble through,” (called a “stumble” because it was the first stringing together of scenes that have before existed only in isolation). The work of everyone in the room is coming together as a finished product today—in one way or another, everyone here is an integral part to putting up this show. Well, except me.

So what am I doing here? As Microsoft Word’s Clippy once said to me: I am here to document. I have been sitting in on Medea rehearsals all semester to try and chart the production’s entire process, map its elements, and understand the way in which everything comes together to form a show.

I spent a lot of time doing theatre in high school and for some time during my first year here: I was an assistant stage manager for “Things We Want” by Columbia University Players my first semester and I directed a one act play for CUP in my second. From this vantage point—a little on the inside, a little on the outside—I recognized quickly that college theatre has its own specific rhythms. It is conceived, managed, produced, rehearsed, and executed by people who have full time occupations elsewhere, as students. These are not professionals who do this all day, or high school students who spend two hours thrice a week after school rehearsing for a production run by teachers.

Why Medea? Sagnak and I went to the same high school and we’ve been close friends since then, partly because of theatre. When she told me last semester that she had successfully proposed a modern-day Medea to KCST in May, I asked if I could write about it, to try and understand this rhythm of college theatre: from paper proposal to performances for a 100 people a night.

Now that the warm-up is over, the cast and crew are setting up for the run through. Han lets the cast know that Ngo will be doing props (this means the actors have to tell Ngo before taking props on stage with them) and Rao will be reminding people when their scenes are coming up. The directorial team takes its position on the line of lime green couches. Actors get into their starting position. Those who aren’t immediately on stage do other things: Josh Zoeller, a Columbia College senior who plays Creon, is working on an essay; Jack Becker, a Columbia College first year, who plays Aegeus, is going through his script; Claire Fry, a Columbia College junior who is one third of the chorus, is doing some reading.

They’re about to delve into Medea, a Greek Tragedy that is, amongst other things, known for its ending: In order to get revenge on her husband Jason for leaving her for a more politically profitable marriage, Medea kills her own children. It is a hard play made all the harder  in our efforts to take it out of antiquity and consider Medea as a modern woman. The idea that—hang on, they’re starting, we’ll come back to Medea in a bit.

Act I

Scene I: Nurse/Tutor

The play opens with rumors; it is all whispered asides, and Medea is nowhere to be found.

The Nurse, played by Sophie Freedman, a sophomore at Barnard, and the Tutor, played by Daniel Kvoras, who is in the School of General Studies, are discussing something they’ve heard: Jason is leaving Medea to marry the king’s daughter for political power.

But that isn’t the worst of it: the Tutor has also heard a rumor that the king, Creon is banishing Medea and her sons.

Kvoras’ Tutor seems excited by this gossip; he eagerly pulls up one of the three chairs placed in the centre up to her, giddily telling his story. Freedman’s Nurse seems more hurt, as if the harm done to Medea is harm done to her. Kneeling, folding laundry—or, well, miming it for now—the Nurse is about to curse Jason, but checks herself. “No! No curse; he is my master.” Already, then, we have a clear sense of power and class.

I saw this scene being rehearsed for the first time in Math 307—a  classroom that reminds me a lot of University Writing perhaps because it’s where I had University Writing. This classroom is where a lot of Medea’s rehearsals take place, becoming a regular stage. The nature of student productions and the never-ending Columbian Search for Space™ means even this tiny room is forced to double as a meeting room, a recital hall, or, in this case, the inside of Medea’s house.

When I first saw this scene on Monday Sept. 18, it was also the first time I got to look inside this house and at the set design that gives aesthetic and thematic shape to the performance space. At the time, it consisted only of three chairs on centre stage, placed right next to each other. The play is performed on a thrust stage, which is to say, audiences are located on three sides, as opposed to just one. As Sagnak explains the space to her actors, I hear her use the phrase “deconstructed interior” in its reference.

The day after that Monday rehearsal, Sagnak tells me that the “deconstructed interior” refers to two ideas: one thematic, one practical. “Thematically, we want to be working with all the elements of a traditional household, you know, furniture, decor, photo frame, toys, clothes,” she says. “But we also want the audience to get a sense that it’s a fragmented household and it’s a household that isn’t functioning properly.” Its other purpose is practical: It gives the space both a vaguely modern, timeless feel, as well as allows us to be in the domestic interior without being in a specific room of the house.

Garcia, the set designer, tells me that early concepts, based on conversations last semester, of the set were grounded in 1950s design. Once this was updated to a modern setting this year, “the visual research didn’t really change much because you could have a very 50s Upper West Side, fancy house,” she explains. “But what did change were like the actual materials.”

Ultimately, the set is based on a gold color scheme. Indeed, when I see the final set in the Black Box theater a few weeks later, it feels golden and warm. As Garcia explains, the three chairs are gold-rimmed; in addition, there is a golden clothes rack, a lamp with warm yellow light, as well as the household items Sagnak mentioned: photo frames, a laundry basket, books.

Now, in Schapiro, the set is somewhere in between these two stages: The three chairs are still in a row in the centre of the room, though there’s also a laundry basket for the Nurse on the bottom right—downstage left—and a clothing rack towards the upper right—upstage left.

Scene II: Medea Exiled

We don’t see Medea in this scene, either. But we hear her shouting, offstage, unseen to the three members of the chorus. Or, at least, she will be unseen during the production: today, Rose Meriam, a junior at Columbia College and a former associate editorial page editor at Spectator, is pacing by the lounge doors, telling us and the chorus: “Oh, how I hate living! I want / To end my life, leave it behind, and die.”

The chorus feel like an ethereal force. They are sitting on the set’s three chairs—crossing their legs one after another, uncrossing them together, and saying their lines in a closely knit rhythm (“Is it death you demand? / Do not pray that prayer, Medea!”). They, like us, are waiting to see Medea.

So, who is our Medea? Played by Meriam, our Medea is a stranded immigrant and betrayed woman. “I was really focused on this motif of Medea as the Deserted Woman,” Sagnak tells me in Sept., before rehearsals began. “And it’s a motif and an image we see countless times throughout pop culture.” She tells me that the idea of making Medea a modern day housewife found its root in the housewife movies of the ’50s—the ones that focus on women who have sacrificed “freedom and movement and personal goals and ambition to put together this domestic arrangement,” as Sagnak puts it, and were then abandoned in it. Betrayed by Jason, Medea is trapped in domesticity.

Equally central to the idea of Medea, though, is her as a stateless refugee. She is a foreigner in Corinth, having betrayed her family to come with Jason and is now abandoned for it. The fact that the play’s script alludes to the idea that having an Asiatic wife like Medea is “no longer respectable,” Sagnak tells me, suggests that “that wild streak or those wild characteristics [of Medea] are so closely linked to this idea of foreignness.”

Although Medea is out for revenge, Meriam doesn’t play her as crazed or deranged. Though it’s a “super easy role to play angry the whole time,” Meriam tells me, it would get boring if that’s all she was. So instead, she and Sagnak created a chart, graphing where there tension is in the play. On top of that, for individual scenes they worked out Medea’s specific, precise driving emotion. “Sometimes it might be pride, sometimes it’s frustration, sometimes it’s just a need to get [to] the next scene,” Meriam says.

This work is clearly visible through the play. Meriam’s Medea never felt one-dimensional; she is, at different times, vulnerable, angry, plotting, sad.

When Medea finally gets on stage, she commands it. “Women of Corinth,” she declares to her audience, and the chorus is instantly attentive, sitting on three sides of the stage listening to Medea announce her intention for revenge.

Scene III: Creon/Medea

Creon, played by Zoeller, stands tall; regal, but stiff. Medea, trying to win one more day before she is banished, is being exceptionally vulnerable. At one point, she is on her knees in front of him: “I kneel to you, I beseech you by the young bride, your child.“

The first time I watched Medea beg, Meriam was sick. She had been sick for a little longer than a weekend but she was still there. Coughing, but there. It was Oct. 2: off-book day, when all lines are, in theory, learned and scripts are no longer needed.

During this rehearsal, there was no table work and no blocking. All scenes had been blocked and now was the time to run them. In this sense, the Oct. 2 rehearsal marked the beginning of what can be called Act II of this rehearsal process. The next two weeks would go a lot like this one: running the scenes, getting notes, running them again, getting more notes, runni—and so on.

That Monday, in Math 307, we got straight to Creon banishing Medea. She begged him, on her knees, not to kick her out. “Why will you not get out?” he asked of her, frustrated.

“This one day let me stay—” She paused.

“Line?”

From off-stage, which in Math 307 is a chair with a foldable desk pushed against a wall, Ngo, told Meriam that she meant to say “to settle some plan for my exile, make provision” and so on.

Directors taking notes (Kurt Huckleberry / Staff Photographer)

Off-book day is always a stressful one for an actor. Especially with large monologues, learning lines can be difficult not just because of their quantity but because of their wording. It is easier to remember monologues by their ideas—what idea comes first and what comes after—and so the specifics of lines are easily missed. The actors of Medea have dealt with being off-script in different ways. Meriam remembers her lines by writing them down; Hugo Wehe, a Columbia College junior who plays Jason sometimes likes to recite his lines to his dog. Other times, he says them back to himself in a stack: first line; first line and second line; first line, second line, and third line; and on. If he misses one, he starts from the beginning.

After the run in Math 307, Sagnak had notes. Medea’s “schemy tone” was great, she said, as was the pause Creon takes before putting his hand on her shoulder. She pointed out, though, that some moments could be tighter. Having delivered these, she sat back to watch the scene again, with her tweaks in place. “I really like this phase of rehearsal actually, I’m having fun,” she said happily.

The scene ran again and though Meriam was still coughing and they were both still calling for lines, the scene moved more quickly, clearly becoming much more familiar to the actors. At the end of the scene, Creon finds his empathy and gives Medea a day before her banishment. Bringing the scene to a close, he remarks: “You can hardly in one day accomplish / What I am afraid of,” which is to say, enact revenge on his daughter, Jason’s new wife.

He repeats this line, run after run. Creon continually believes that Medea cannot enact her plans for bloody revenge in a single day. Of course, that’s exactly what Medea does.

Scene 4: Medea Enacts Revenge

The chorus, almost a collective being, are toying with Medea. They move together, often talk together, and pose rhetorical, almost mocking, questions: “A wanderer, where can you turn? / To what welcoming house? / To what protecting land?” After Creon leaves, the three chorus members return to the stage in Schapiro Lounge. They each pick a chair and turn it to face a different part of the audience. The audience will surround the stage on three sides on opening night, but for now, one is facing the doors, one the window and one the directors. They have in their hand wine glasses, their musical instruments. What makes this chorus feel like one—more so than the echoed lines or synchronised movement—is their sound.

During the first chorus scene I sit in on, back when rehearsals were still in Math 307, Shahd is playing around with wine glasses; three of them, each half filled with water from their water bottle. Wetting their fingers, Shahd holds one of the glasses by its stem and glides their finger along the rim, producing a surprisingly loud, eerie note that bounces around the room.

They teach the chorus—comprised of Fry, Grace Hargis, and Grace Henning (the two Graces have had to go by their full names these past weeks)—how to play the wine glass: “Do it as loud as I can,” Shahd instructs. Although it takes a few minutes, soon all three members can do it, producing a loud, eerie sound. Choral, almost.

The glasses belong to their characters—each of them will be on stage with wine. This wine-drinking Greek chorus is the “real housewives of Corinth,” Shahd tells me in conversation. Sagnak sees them as “women of Corinth who occupy the same position as Medea but more naturally and gracefully.” She enjoys embracing the dramatic, exaggerated styling of the chorus: “[There’s] no point to pretending we’re not putting on a Greek Tragedy, even though we’re putting it on in a modern setting.”

Grace Hargis, member of the chorus, during rehearsal

(Kurt Huckleberry/ Staff Photographer)

It is in fact this vision of the chorus that drew Shahd to the production in the first place. They describe sitting in the meeting last May when Sagnak proposed Medea to KCST and being struck by her interpretation of the chorus: housewives who represent a certain idea of femininity in the production.

You can’t have a Greek tragedy without a Greek chorus. Theory books will tell you that the chorus is a group of actors who comment on the action, who guide the audience through the play’s plot and its thematic arguments, interacting directly with characters and the audience. They are a bridge, of sorts. Having spent time in theatre, and with Greek choruses, though, I find this description incomplete. The Greek chorus is more a character, setting, and critic, all fused into one. The chorus often operates as one body, moving and talking together. Which group of people the writer or even the director chooses to unify into a chorus is incredibly telling.

Here, it’s housewives. Medea is a modern housewife trapped in domesticity, but she is not alone. Though the members of the chorus are often horrified at Medea’s actions, they understand and sympathize. “Your grief touches our hearts,” they let her know as they walk (or rather, glide) across the classroom toward the chairs, turning them to face the three sides of the audience and taking a seat. “”How wild with dread and danger / Is the sea where the gods have set your course!”

In Schapiro Lounge, the scene is very similar. But without scripts in hand, the chorus looks more celestial. They float now. The sound in the scene is now more defined, it is a mix of two sets of nails tapping on the glass and the resonance of the water against glass.

Medea is also part of this one: toward the end of the scene, she turns to the chorus, knowingly. “We were born women—useless for honest purposes / But in all kinds of evil skilled practitioners.” The chorus and Medea are united as women, as in Euripides’ text, and specifically upper middle class housewives, as in this production, trying so hard to reverse their reputation, reverse injustices, and honor the female sex.

Scene 5: Jason/Medea

For someone so evil, Jason is pretty charming. Wehe’s Jason is a smooth talker; his voice is buttery and warm. He is standing in front of Medea after having sold their marriage away for political gain, and he reminds me, for some inexplicable reason, of a boy who has just gotten his friend in trouble for passing notes. He is smug like he knows everything is working out for him.

Even as Medea unleashes her fury at him (“Oh, it’s not courage, / This looking friends in the face after betraying them. / It is not even audacity; it’s a disease”), he turns to face her, unmoved, and powerfully quiet, in the way people with broad shoulders often seem to be. She barrels on in anger, he makes his way to her three chairs and lies down, spreading himself out in her space.

At Schapiro, Wehe lies on the chairs, snaps his fingers, and the Nurse brings him a wine glass which he rests on his torso. He mimes eating something from it—grapes, maybe? As Medea rages on, Jason is uninterested—he spits out the seed of the grape, highlighting his disdain. Medea will have none of this. A few moments later, she pushes aside the chair that his head is resting on, leaving him hanging off it awkwardly.

But Jason will have to stay: He sits up to respond to her, still broad shouldered, still buttery—until he isn’t. As Medea interrupts, he shouts over her: “No, keep quiet!” I only watched this scene for the first time a couple of days ago in Schapiro Lounge, quickly typing down notes, and his sudden burst of volume and power made me look up, stomach where heart should be, a tingle between my shoulder blades.

When Jason and Medea fight, it truly feels like they have been for eons—an Ancient Greek hatred carried into today. Wehe tells me that this dynamic between him and Meriam didn’t come from working the scenes; in fact, it came from the character work that he did with Sagnak and Meriam. He maps out one of these exercises for me:

Wehe and Meriam were given either end of a rod, which they kept balanced between them by applying equal pressure on their end with one finger. Both had the same the goal: to try and manipulate the rod, and therefore the other, into doing what they wanted. Who could make the other dance? But also: who would pick up the rod if it fell?

They also had staring matches (not the kind where you see who takes longer to blink). The idea, instead, was glaring at close proximity to see who could intimidate the other first. Who could look the other down, to be bigger, more violent, without any physical contact. Intimidation was marked by kneeling—which character would be the first to kneel?

Scene 6: Aegeus/Medea

The scene, in which Medea asks for refuge in Athens from her friend Aegeus, is disconcerting because of Meriam’s expression throughout it. It is supposed to be a reunion of best friends. We don’t know much about Aegeus except that he is an old friend and that, for once, Medea looks happy to see someone. As Becker and Meriam sit on the chairs, where only a minute ago we saw Jason, the scene feels warmer and closer than we could ever imagine imagine Jason and Medea being. And yet, Medea is shaken. Aegeus knows it.

This scene was one of the first I ever watched back in September, when I was still getting a sense for the way Medea’s rehearsal room operated.

Sagnak, it is clear, has a definitive directorial vision for the direction of the play. She works alongside Shahd and Baum as a directorial team. The three of them, often sitting on different sides of the stage during blocking to recreate the three sided audience perspective, all comment and focus on different aspects of the production. This is even clearer during run throughs, when they give the actors separate sets of notes, all picking up on different aspects of the performance.

But the actors and directors are not the only people present at a given rehearsal. As Medea begs for refuge in Athens, or kneels in front Creon, or fights with Jason, in the centre of the room, on the sides, the stage managers and producers are quietly doing their own work.

Han and her assistants, Ngo and Rao, form the stage managing team of Medea. The three of them are present at almost every rehearsal, working on the administration that keeps the show running: chasing after and calling actors who are late, writing notes, keeping track of the blocking and making sure everyone is focused, calling breaks every hour. And when they’re not doing these things, they are working on their own homework, quietly reading or typing away at their laptops. When I talk to Han, she tells me the hardest part of this is process is sometimes having to exert authority over others, who are students, some older than her.

Just as often at these rehearsals is Seidenberg, there for support and just in case she is needed in her capacity as producer, also reading, also working. At the rehearsal of this scene I first saw, Seidenberg is reading Mariam Dossal’s “Imperial Designs and Indian Realities,” an academic monograph that takes a closer look at the built environment and public infrastructure of colonial Bombay. I know because I’m also in that class and the syllabus asks us to expect “250 pages of reading a week” and so it has to be done sometime. Shahd is also in the class and also reading when they can. I, in line with my regular practices, have not yet begun.

When rehearsal is on, these parts of the room, the corners and edges where all the chairs have been pushed to make way for the stage, feel entirely separate. Everyone here is quiet, shrunken like they want to allow the stage be as big as it needs to be.

The setup captures quite precisely what it means to be working on a student production: academics and theatre, crammed together, everyone finding whatever incremental bit of time they have to get work done.

As soon as Sagnak takes five, though, everyone is talking. There is a comfortable laughter at almost all times. At one point in the rehearsal, Meriam accidentally knocks Seidenberg’s shoes with a chair and a fight breaks out on whether Birkenstocks are a fashion disaster or not. (Option A: Yes; Option B: Yes, but that’s what makes them ironically lovable.)

(Kurt Huckleberry / Staff Photographer)

(Elza Bouhassira for Spectator)

Intermission

Okay, so KCST’s Medea has no intermission. I am allowing for one here, though, because so much of this play takes place outside of the rehearsal room, so it makes sense to step out of it for a moment.

For starters, the play was birthed outside of the rehearsal room. KCST picks plays via what is called its advisory board: Every current student that has been in two or more KCST shows is invited to sit on this board. At the end of each semester, this board—the A-Board—listens to proposals, pitched by potential directors, and then votes and decides.

Moreover, most of Seidenberg’s—the producer’s—work takes place outside of the rehearsal space. Producing is a tricky job. Producers are like the toothpick in a big club sandwich that holds it together lest it spectacularly fall apart: she holds Medea together. That said, Seidenberg finds it hard to put exactly into words what a producer does.

Her job, she tells me, includes everything from reserving space to talking to administrators.“But more than anything, that comes under the umbrella of making sure the show goes on and is working toward going on.” She is helped in her work by her production assistants, Antara Agarwal, a sophomore in Columbia College, and Lindheimer.

For Medea, which is relatively small and doesn’t have a publicity team, the producers also run marketing. Over the course of the rehearsal process, I have seen Seidenberg send emails to the cast and crew’s parents for advertising on the program, and I have seen her distribute posters announcing gameplans for where and when to put them up, I have also seen her carry a big box—the Nurse’s laundry basket—with her through Diana, and then accidentally leave it there in the computer science lab.

Ally Han, stage manager, at rehearsals (Kurt Huckleberry / Staff Photographer)

Also keeping everything going is Han. She, along with Rao and Ngo, create schedules, manage time conflicts if they arise, and even make extra time for actors to run lines. But all of that is small compared to the team’s big project: being in charge during tech week. Just as in today’s run through in Schapiro, Ngo is in charge of props, Rao is in charge of actors and, in Sagnak’s words, “Ally Han is the boss.” She manages everyone’s time, creates a schedule, and makes sure tech runs according to plan.

But the show doesn’t exist, also, without the various designers and production team members who give it its look, feel and texture. Breana Beaudrault, a Barnard junior, and her assistant Catherine Ferrante, a Barnard first-year, worked on the show’s costuming; Kalina Ko, a Barnard first-year, designed its lights; Luke Cregan, Columbia College junior, served as dramaturg, providing research and context.

Act II.

Scene 7: Medea Plots

On “stage” at Schap, the three chorus members are sitting on the floor and reading. Standing around them, Medea is plotting: She is going to tell Jason she’s seen the error of her ways. Then, she’s going to send the princess gifts of a dress and golden coronet, both poisoned, that will kill her when she puts them on.

The chorus seems uninterested: They’re focused on their reading. They gasp, though it seems to be at their reading, not Medea.

“What makes me cry with pain is the next thing I have to do. I will kill my sons.” This gets their attention. Each of them looks up, shocked.

Shahd and Baum are sitting directly in front of me on this Sunday run and they both seem very happy with this scene. They’ve been reacting physically at their favorite moments through the entire run and this scene is no different: watching the chorus gasp into their books and not pay attention to Medea, Shahd pumps their fists in excitement.

Scene 8: Medea Deceives Jason

Even as her words tell us differently, Medea’s face is often very revealing of her true intentions. Even as she pretends to give in to Jason, she is unable to hide her distaste for him on her face.

She convinces Jason that everything is okay—that she’s seen the error of her ways, that clearly Jason was wise in his decision to marry upwards. For the sake of children. Everything, he says, will be well, “with the help of the gods.” (At a rehearsal three days earlier, Jason crosses his fingers as he says this—cheeky. The directors burst out laughing.)

But Medea’s anger is barely kept in check. It is boiling in a pot left barely covered with a tin lid; a lid that could fall over and overpour at any moment.

When I talk to Meriam, she explains to me that this is the scene in which, she thinks, Medea decides to kill her children. “He will never know and the Corinthians will never know just how backwards and how terrible and how opposing and oppressive society is until she proves to them that she is not what they see,” she says.

In the same conversation, we also talk about KCST as a student group. She, like everyone else I speak to, emphasises that above all, KCST is a troupe of theater makers first and a production company second. Everyone who’s been in even one KCST production will from that point onwards always be a member of KCST. Rao tells me that it is in their constitution (they have a constitution) that once someone has joined the troupe, they are in it for the duration “of their natural life.”

The ensemble runs two productions each semester—one by Shakespeare, one by another—and is dedicated to keeping their shows free to access. The “troupe”ness of KCST is maintained across both productions by weekly traditions: all current and former KCST members are invited to Wednesday night “Office Hours,” when KCST members go out on Wednesday nights after rehearsal. Every Sunday at noon, also, the entire troupe meets for what are called Sunday Rehearsals, which are an hour of games and exercises that foster bonding. Shahd tells me that Sunday Rehearsals remind them of something they learned in their modernism class: that is, to view “ritual as catharsis, as ways of restoring some sort of collective unit and curing social alienation.” Which is to say: KCST is a family.

Scene 9: Tutor Delivers News

The tutor runs in with good news: Creon has lifted the banishment of Medea’s sons.

But Medea doesn’t look happy. “Isn’t that good news? Why do you stand there thunderstruck?” he asks her. She’s silent because she knows that she must kill her children.

I first see this scene a week before the current run and it takes some time for Meriam’s big monologue to work. She is going back and forth on whether she has it in her to kill her own sons. The first time Meriam delivers the monologue, both she and Sagnak agree that parts of it feel “too clean.” Baum says she likes the moment in which Medea steels herself and leans against her chair for support. But this is not yet a Medea who will kill her children.

We try again. This time, the Medea we meet doesn’t know what to do with her body. She’s fumbling for her words: reaching, reaching but they’re coming only in sputters. Punctuating her entire monologue are soft, audible gasps; she is gulping air, as much as she can. Medea is different in the space. In this run, she ends up on the floor of her house, head down. We cannot see her face but her body is visibly shaking from the air gulping. Still bent on the ground, she brings herself to do it, to kill her kids: “I understand / The horror of what I am going to do; / but anger, The spring of all life’s horror / masters my resolve,” she chokes at us.

Rose Meriam as Medea, reacting to the Tutor’s news (Kurt Huckleberry / Staff Photographer)

Suddenly, the monologue is over and there is loud, half celebratory/half shocked shouting. Baum is off her feet, Sagnak is on the ground, on her knees in front of Meriam. She is asking Meriam to look at her eyes: to tell her there are tears, that she is crying.

A week later in Schapiro Lounge, the same space I saw the monologue the first time, there is no crying—everyone has seen the scene a few times already.

Scene 10: Messenger/Medea

In the script, the messenger delivers a long monologue to Medea about the ways in which the princess and Creon died. In this play, though, the scene is broken up between the Tutor and the chorus, who narrate this story together.

As chorus members hauntingly alternate through the story—telling us, in turn, of how the bride puts on the poisoned dress, how she dies, how Creon finds her and collapses on her corpse in grief, how he doesn’t fare too well either—the other two sing softly, a repeated refrain, haunting.

Everything about the scene—from its splitting of lines to use of actors for background scoring—evokes a good kind of jealousy in me: Shit. I wish I’d thought of that.

This is also the scene in which Medea finally kills her children. We don’t see it, though. Meriam goes off stage and Freedman is left on. There is silence for a while before we hear a sharp, sudden gasp. On stage, we can the nurse’s thoroughly horrified expression.

Scene 11: Medea Exodus

Jason bursts onto the space, furious, booming. Medea stares him down cooly. She is not sorry.

This scene is the most iconic in the play. It is Jason and Medea’s final, grand confrontation. Jason has learned that his children are dead at the hands of his crazed, jealous wife and she wants revenge.

This confrontation was first blocked in that tiny space of Math 307. “Slaves, there! Unbar the doors! Open, and let me see! Two horrors: my dead sons, and the woman I will kill,” Wehe roars in the small classroom, his voice menacing.

Meriam, who is by the chalkboard, enters the centre of the room smugly. She walks toward him. “Jason! Why are you battering at these doors, seeking / The dead children and me who killed them?”

“Hold.”

Meriam and Wehe fall out of character almost instantly, almost as if they are saving it like fuel for when it is needed most. Sagnak asks Meriam not to walk toward Wehe: Medea has just killed Jason’s legacy, she wouldn’t walk toward him.

Meriam and Hugo Wehe as Medea and Jason (Kurt Huckleberry / Staff Photographer)

Instead, she makes them stand at opposite corners of the stage, glaring, walking slowly toward each other, inching as momentum of their confrontation builds. “We are going Spaghetti Western Showdown style,” Sagnak announces.

When Wehe was describing those character exercises Sagnak had he and Meriam do, he tells me that neither he nor Meriam kneeled in intimidation. He entered that exercise with a strong conviction that Jason would never kneel—not for anyone; he just isn’t that person. He tells me that Meriam, on the other hand, had considered kneeling at a couple of moments. But she couldn’t—not after everything Jason had taken from her. After 15, 20 minutes Sagnak had to break them up.

Epilogue

The last day of rehearsal I watch is on Monday, Oct. 16: the first day of tech week. Tech week is crucial because a lot of things can only happen then. Baum explains to me that setting the production in the space is crucial to seeing it as a completed piece. “And I think seeing it in a classroom with blackboards is very different from seeing it with some of the cool lighting concepts we’re working with,” she adds.

In the Lerner Black Box, Ko and Shahd are working on lighting the show. From the audience seating, Shahd watches Freedman and Kvoras run through the first scene again. They pause, from time to time, as the actors move through the space, to ensure they stay consistently well lit. Kalina is upstairs (or upladder, rather), in the tech booth, adding or removing or dimming or brightening lights as needed. Baum and Sagnak, sitting on the right and left audience seating, are letting Shahd know whether the actors are lit from their side.

As Sagnak tells me in our final interview, in a way her job is done. Although she’ll still be watching and giving notes, this week is primarily for the stage manager and designers to do their thing and for the actors to get used to the space. We are out of the rehearsal room.

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