Today feels like the right day for reflecting on a Greek tragedy. After all, November 23 is traditionally the day when theater was born. Thespis of Icaria, near Athens, stepped out of a chorus and became the first actor in the mid-6th century BCE. Or maybe he didn’t, but that’s the story (and people definitely have been pretending to be other people for much longer than that!).
Randolph College has done a Greek play every other year for… a very long time. Several decades, at least. They do them “original practices” style, or as close as they can manage. I’ve heard about them for years, but only this year finally was able to get to Lynchburg to see one. Amy Cohen, the director, is the daughter of Ralph A. Cohen*, the founder of the American Shakespeare Center. ASC is known for original practices Shakespeare. The first shows I saw there were a revelation. I had read about original practices Shakespeare, but seeing it put into action was mind-blowing. I’ve been hooked ever since. So I was eager to see how my perceptions of Greek drama might be changed by seeing it done in the best reconstruction we can manage.
The show took place in an amphitheater on the campus. It probably could have seated a few hundred people, but when we went, the crowds were not overwhelming.
In preparation, I told my kids the story of Medea. It occured to me later that having your own mother tell you a story about a mom killing her children might have been disturbing…but they didn’t seem too traumatized. They enjoyed the dialog portions of the play, but were less interested in the songs and dancing. They really love the end, where Medea appears in Helios’ chariot.
The actors use full shield masks over their faces and wear Grecian tunics and leggings. The shield masks were interesting–I’ve long wondered how it would feel to watch a production masked like this. I felt sorry for the actors, as it was a warm day, and the masks included full wigs that were attached to the facial part. My concern for the actors was a layer on my experience of the play. The masks were substantially larger than a real human face. One thing I want to note as commendable–although I have zero clue if it would have been part of the Greek practice–was that the masks were painted to match the actual skin tones of this multi-ethnic cast. A small detail, but one that I think is important. At first, I found them distracting, especially on the children, who looked like bobbleheads. They also muffled some of the actors’ voices. I could tell they were working hard to overcome these challenges. After a while, I got used to them, but didn’t find them compelling.
It wasn’t until the very end when the masks began to make a positive impact on my experience. Medea’s entrance on the chariot was a bit farther from me than the stage was. Her mask stopped looking cartoonish and just looked powerful. Like a statue come to life, it felt impressive and grand, like it was expanding the actor rather than hindering her.
I remember one time, as a demonstration for my theater history class, I tried to give them a sense of the sheer size of the Greek theaters by sending a group of them across the campus green to the library steps. “Perform ‘The Three Little Pigs,’ I said. ‘The rest of them will have to guess what you’re doing.'” At that extreme distance, the student-actors had to make their bodies and faces huge to communicate their story. All of us understood, watching, why the ancient Greeks wore masks. So I think my discomfort with these masks was because the stage was just too close. Of course, now I want to try this experiment in an actual Greek theater…
The play featured original movement and musical settings of large sections of the chorus texts. These songs were lovely and did a good job conveying the story. My son hadn’t ever seen a play that combined spoken words and music in this way (he’s seen musicals, but in this play, only the chorus sang). He enjoyed the songs, especially since the text was printed in the program and he could follow along.
Some of the student actors were very strong, especially the young woman who played Medea. She does not get a break, she’s on stage the whole time. Everyone else comes and goes. She did a lot of great work at conveying her intentions despite the mask. I’d like to see her in a production where her face is visible.
I’d like to see another one of these, and my kids said they would like to go back as well. I think they alternate comedy and tragedy, so next time might be a bit more of a knee-slapper.
*Side note: I actually saw Ralph there, along with Mary Hill Cole, another of my professors from grad school. Seeing them was a fun surprise.