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A Greek tragedy graces the Greek

17 September 2003



Berkeley classics Professor Mark Griffith calls Medea "live action that was written to be performed with music and dance." American productions typically omit the chorus — but not so in this weekend’s two performances at the Hearst Greek Theatre, where the National Theatre of Greece’s 23-member chorus will play a pivotal role. The ambitious contemporary production is being brought to Berkeley by Cal Performances after several years of planning for an event that would commemorate the centennial of the Greek Theatre — where more than 90 years ago the campus Committee on Music and Drama, a forerunner of Cal Performances, began the tradition of inviting professional performers to appear before university audiences. Prior to that, the Greek had hosted student productions almost exclusively.
Photo courtesy of Cal Performances

This weekend, Cal Performances celebrates the Hearst Greek Theatre’s centennial with two presentations of Euripides’ Medea, performed by the National Theatre of Greece in modern Greek, with English supertitles. The performances, which mark the American premiere of this acclaimed production, will be Saturday, Sept. 20, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.

In their Berkeley performances the troupe will employ classic Greek staging, with the actors performing in the semicircular orchestra section in front of the stage. Says professor of classics Mark Griffith, “This is a rare opportunity — and it’s what the Greek Theatre was built for.”

Built a century ago, the Greek was modeled on ancient theaters precisely constructed to accommodate dramatic performances, with great attention paid to acoustics and sightlines. The first campus theater of its kind in the U.S., it spawned others in California and across the country. But while the Greek hosted many classical productions in the early decades of its existence, it has in recent years surrendered the role of primary campus dramatic venue to Zellerbach Hall and the Zellerbach Playhouse. This weekend’s theatrical production will be the first to grace the Greek’s stage since 1989.

Euripides’ drama, written in 430 B.C., tells of Medea, a sorceress who used her powers to help her husband, Jason, leader of the Argonauts, capture the Golden Fleece. Jason later deserts her, in favor of gaining the kingdom of Corinth — where they are living in exile — through marriage to King Creon’s daughter. Medea plots revenge against her unfaithful husband, and the grotesque events that follow give structure to one of the most legendary of Greek tragedies — a timeless narrative exploring revenge, power struggles between the sexes, and the pain ignited by infidelity.

“Euripides makes you sympathize with her,” says Griffith. “And then you find yourself appalled at what jealousy can make you do.” The extreme to which Medea takes her vengeance typically divides the play’s audience. “Some people are rooting for her,” says Griffith, “and other people think she’s a monster.

“If you’re a woman of spirit whose honor is at stake,” Griffith continues, “the question is, are you going to just grin and bear it, or are you going to do something any guy would do? Guys go ballistic all the time; women are not expected to do so.”

Last November Cal Performances presented the Abbey Theatre’s contemporary version of Medea in Zellerbach Playhouse, directed by Deborah Warner and starring the renowned Irish actress Fiona Shaw. Those who saw that production and then take advantage of this weekend’s performance can, according to Griffith, “get two completely different takes and two completely different idioms. This is totally different production in a totally different space in the original language.”

On Friday, Sept. 19, from 3:30 to 5 p.m., Griffith will moderate a free symposium, “A New Medea for Berkeley’s Historic Greek Theatre,” featuring scholars and members of the National Theatre of Greece, in the Morrison Library. A reception will follow.

For those attending either weekend performance, Griffith will offer a pre-performance talk to enhance their appreciation of the play. Part of Cal Performances’ “Sightlines” series, the half-hour discussion will take place on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Sept. 21, at 6 p.m.

Tickets ($32 general, $62 reserved) are available at the Cal Performances Ticket Office at Zellerbach Hall; at 642-9988 to charge by phone; at www.calperfs.berkeley.edu; and by cash only at the door. Faculty and staff can purchase one ticket, receive their $2 discount, and get a second ticket free. UC Berkeley I.D. is required.

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