Monday, April 6, 2009

Reviewing Medusa

Riverside - When I review a show, I’m always interested in what I overhear between the acts and around the margins. I’m not eavesdropping on who had what for dinner beforehand. I want to know: What does the audience think of the show? Perhaps this curiosity arises from a lack of self-confidence in my own opinions, but I prefer to attribute it to a sense of the larger duty of the reviewer. I like to ask: What was this experience like—not just for me, but for the community of people who formed the audience the night I saw the show? And what will you, dear reader, be likely to see, feel and think if you come see what I saw?

Watching Raising Medusa by Barbara Lau at Riverside Theatre was striking in terms of audience reaction. The play centers on a mother-daughter relationship fraught with all the tension that adolescence introduces into the parent-child bond: a young woman tearing towards independence, an adult clinging to the image of a child who no longer exists, emotional fights about everything from shampoo brands to taste in friends. It is impossible to watch the show and avoid comparisons with one’s own life. “Every scene! Every scene something has happened between me and you,” a young woman exclaimed to her mother at intermission, just as the older woman sitting next to me leaned over and smiled. “At least my four daughters were easy,” she said with certain satisfaction. At the same time, I found myself recalling the fights and deceptions and general unrest I went through with my own mother when I was a teenager testing the (then very unsatisfying) boundaries of my independence. In short, the show strikes a chord and does a complicated balancing act in constructing the emotional needs of both the mother and daughter. One of the beauties of this story is that both points of view (the clinging to what was on the part of the mother and the stabbing for what could be on the part of the daughter) are developed with care and compassion. We sympathize with the mother; we understand the daughter. We see ourselves in each of them.

Behind the brilliance of the story shines the unique form in which it is relayed; it is a blend of poetry, scene, and even features a three-person Greek chorus whose members alternately comment on the action, crack jokes, serve as muses for the mother’s character (who is a writer), burst into little songs, and inhabit other characters as driven by the narrative. The seeming pastiche also garnered comments from my fellow audience members, who wondered out loud “how they were gonna weave this play together.” It is woven seamlessly, passing between beautiful poem and scene with lyrical ease and grace. Since the mother’s character is a writer, her journal (a ubiquitous presence on the stage and a character in itself) serves as a narrative device to prompt many of the poems’ insertions into the narrative. The chorus members alternately prompt the mother to read old poems which reveal something about the history of her relationship with her daughter, and to write “into the void”—to craft new meaning out of the uncomfortable struggle that characterizes her current relationship—so that we see, also, poems being created before us. The mother tells a story about burying the neighbor girl’s hamster, and how she realized she also had experienced a loss, a death; her little girl was never returning. “Come back, come back, my songbird, my jester, my cartwheel cross the floor for whom no ceremony of grief exists,” the mother laments in her striking poet’s voice that is at once witty, richly imagistic, earthy and wise.

Embodying the spirit of the mother’s character with grace equal to the language of the script is Nancy Youngblut, whose performance anchors the show. Youngblut does a superb job of portraying the sometimes crippling intensity of a mother’s love with sincerity and conviction. There is a delicate balance between hysteria and emotionality to be found in many of the scenes. In other hands, I could envision this character grating a bit — because there are a lot of fights and a lot of storming off the stage by the mother and the daughter — but Youngblut finds the emotional textures and contours that Lau has created in her script and creates peaks and valleys that we want to traverse with her. When she’s yelling, we’d be yelling too, dammit. When she cries, it’s with good reason. Likewise, she is convincing as an author. The poems she recites seem at home tripping off her tongue, and her handling of the sometimes complicated but always beautiful language is natural.

The mother-daughter scenes in the show are absorbing in their honesty and intensity, and they wouldn’t be thus without the also-convincing performance of Laura Tatar as the daughter (Maddie), who undergoes a physical transformation as dramatic as the psychological dimensions of her coming-of-age, going from a sweet kid in a dishwater blonde pigtail and blue jeans to a punk with severe black-and-red hair and extraneous zippers and safety pins everywhere. Thanks in part to the complexly woven script, Tatar plays the “angry daughter” two-dimensionally and sympathetically. We see both the rebellion (when Maddie hurls the “f” word directly into her mother’s face) and the uncertainty and insecurity behind it (when Maddie hugs a teddy bear or faces rejection from an old friend she’s neglected). Tartar plays both of these turns with equal conviction.

The actors in the chorus (Jody Hovland, Kristy Hartsgrove and Jaclyn June Johnson) nimbly insert and extricate themselves from the action, letting the focus stay where it should remain: on the main characters and their conflict. The chorus steps into and out of that story to move it along, trying on characters as diverse as “Ven” the teenaged “new kid in town” who is Maddie’s latest best friend and the mother’s worst nightmare, to jaded parents in the waiting room of a family counselor, to Medusa herself, snake-hair and all. The chorus is in sync and spot on with their uniform recitations and sometimes silly stray song bursts. I swore at one point they were going to bust out with a little Supremes number - but I digress. They are also effective in their independent characters, sometimes making startling transformations themselves. I had to double-check the program and rub my eyes, for instance, when I realized that Chorus 3 and Ven were both played by Johnson.

If the measure of a play is the effect it has on its audience, count Raising Medusa a success. It is a well-written, skillfully-voiced carnival of language both poetic and dramatic that will leave you thinking about your own family drama — or lack thereof in the case of the woman who sat next to me. “I think I’m glad I had four girls,” she told me when the show was over. “They worked it all out together, between them.”

-Vicki Krajewski

Vicki Krajewski has acted and directed with theatre companies in Chicago and Iowa including the Prairie Center for the Arts, Sandcastle Productions, Dreamwell, Catalyst, Iowa City Community Theatre and City Circle. Several of her short plays and monologues have been produced in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Along with her performance pieces, she does occasional newspaper reporting, freelance feature writing, technical writing, personal essays and even some poetry.

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