Society doesn’t look kindly upon mothers who kill their children, intentionally or otherwise; right now the court of public opinion is busily vilifying Diane Schuler who was reportedly drunk and stoned when she piled a group of children (her own daughter included) into her car and then drove the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway killing everyone as well as (some would say rightfully) herself. Before that, there was the infamous Andrea Yates, who, in a stupor of post-partum depression and psychosis, systematically drowned one child after another until all 5 of her young boys were dead. But really, the “how” is never the question. In fact, the “how” is pretty much shushed away quickly, no one wants to hear how a mother kills her own children. What we are left asking is … why? Why would a mother kill these little ones?
The Greeks have always been amazing storytellers; their myths and tragedies are rife with the themes that pulse through every level of society. Show me an Icarus and I’ll show you a victim of Bernie Madoff. But the story of Medea has always been a little harder to figure out; a woman who is so angered by her husband’s betrayal that she kills her sons in order to exact revenge on him. Again, this “why” never quite resonated enough with me to be clearly understood. A woman can more easily identify with killing herself over a tragic affair than she can with killing her own child. So updating Medea has to be done very carefully. Luckily, playwright Will Le Vasseur has found a way to give his Medea the perfect out, thus preserving the original story while making his main character actually sympathetic. In this updated version, MADDY A Modern Day Medea By Will Le Vasseur (also directed by Le Vasseur), all the traditional conventions of Greek tragedy are there; a single plot, a single day, a catastrophe. And the original tale remains too, almost down to the letter but with a fantastic twist that is enjoyable to watch unfold.
Seven years ago in the midst of a storm Maddy (Lynn Kenny) spared Billy-Jay (Blaine Pennington) from death rather than allow him to be victim of a natural disaster. Taken with his charm, his good looks, his magnetism, she chose to leave her natural state of being and become like him in order to be with him. Yet, despite her great sacrifice of leaving her life, her ways and her people, Billy-Jay decides to betray her after seven years of marriage and two children in order to marry the (unseen but apparently very unattractive) daughter of Cleetus (Ben Strothmann), the rich landowner who owns most of the trailer parks, including the one they’ve been living in. From the original Medea: I saved your life — … I killed, and I raised aloft for you the fair light of escape from death. Of my own accord I abandoned my father and my home and came with you … showing more love than sense … And after such benefits from me, o basest of men, you have betrayed me and have taken a new marriage, though we had children. For if you were still childless, your desire for this marriage would be understandable.
The situation Le Vasseur creates to absolve Maddy, and to give us a way to understand her, is to give the life she left an extra twist … whereas Medea was a Barbarian, Maddy was actually immortal, with no human feelings whatsoever prior to meeting Billy-Jay. She was an “Elemental” to be exact, not a human per se, but one who takes on human form in order to live among other humans. She and her kind are responsible for the elements which keep the earth in balance, and each of the Elementals are allowed to experience humanity for a number of years if they choose. However, at the end of an appointed amount of time (seven years) they can choose to stay in the human form and live a mortal life, full of all the pains and tragedies that come with it, or they can return to their immortality and lose all human contact, lose all feelings they aquired during their stay, and above all, lose (or rather remove) all trace of themselves. This would include children.
On the one hand, the choice is easy. Maddy loves her children, she’s grappled with but come to understand all the human emotions that writhe and swell within her, and she’s still in love with Billy-Jay. For his part, Billy-Jay is still in love with her too, and explains that he is only marrying this other woman for the money; he will still provide for his children and for Maddy though he probably won’t see much of them. This too is taken directly from the original play: I shall not argue any more of this case with you. But if you wish to get some of my money to help the children and yourself in exile, say the word, for I am ready to give with unstinting hand, and also to send tokens to my friends, who will treat you well. You would be a fool not to accept this offer, woman. Forget your anger and it will be the better for you.
So obviously, on the other hand, the choice is not so easy. Staying means a life “in the servitude of someone else” … always struggling for work, never free to love the man she left her people for … and always feeling alone, out of place, disconnected. Really … not such an easy choice at all.
Playwright Le Vasseur does an amazing job of capturing all the intrinsic elements of the classic play while still making this a completely believable trailer park story, adding all the typical white trash touches like neighbors who gossip behind the beer cans. Heather Shields as Flo is at once dim and wise; she hasn’t moved much beyond her trailer park borders but she’s got a heart big enough to navigate the newness of someone as strange as Maddy, and give her the warmth and friendship she deserves. Lynn Kenny does a superb job of bringing confused life to Maddy; a woman only 7 years into her fleet of emotions and already saddled with a betraying husband, no job prospects, two kids under the age of 10, and a trailer park full of woman who won’t give her the time of day but have no shortage of sullen glances and whispered rumors to pass her way. Blaine Pennington is wonderful as the pretty but vapid Billy-Jay who ultimately is too weak to choose to be with the woman he loves.
There are some wonderful touches in this production, such as fans which blow directly on the audience during one pivotal scene, and the use of an unseen TV to describes scenes which would otherwise be difficult to recreate on such a small stage. By allowing the audience to hear things from a neighbor’s TV the scene becomes that much more vivid and ghastly, and ultimately the destruction seems more permanent.
In the end, Maddy makes her choice, and it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Even so, I won’t spoil it — you may figure out the “what”, but you’ll have to see it to understand the “why”.
THE SWAN SONG
Starring Will Le Vasseur and Ben Strothmann. Directed by Lynn Kenny
How does one follow a re-telling of Medea? With Chekhov, of course. This time Will Le Vasseur casts himself in one of the most intimate, eerie, personal pieces I’ve seen in a long time. Set in a darkened theatre after the show is over, an old drunken actor awakes from the back room to find the theatre empty and the place abandoned. Le Vasseur is so touchingly real that I found myself holding my breath at times; there were moments which were so fragile that it was impossible to move. Seeing Le Vasseur embody an old actor, once great, now reduced to buffoonish clowning, is heartbreakingly poignant. When he begins to play some of the greats (Hamlet, MacBeth) to the empty theatre he does so with terrific ease, an actor playing an actor, playing his long-ago best. Truly a stunning feat. Chekov is always good, but this is probably one of the best I’ve seen and I almost can understand why it’s not done more often; it is to an actor what Queen of the Night’s Rage Aria ‘Der Hölle Rache’ from W Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (If you’ve seen Amadeus, you’ve heard it) is to a Soprano – stunningly complex and multifaceted and can only be attempted by the most accomplished of talents. I was lucky enough to watch it not just performed but almost created around me. A piece of theatre this touching is very rare.
In one night I was lucky enough to catch all the talents of this triple threat … writer, director, actor — I see good things for Will Le Vasseur. I hope that I get to see more of what he does in the future.MADDY A Modern Day Medea / THE SWAN SONG