It’s a horror that’s been with us since we climbed down from the trees, and we still don’t understand it. But a powerful drama can make us face and feel a painful mystery, as the Greek tragedies did.
Bella Poynton sets out to do just that, by telling a mythic monster’s little-known backstory. (Because that story is so unfamiliar, almost never told even in books of mythology, I will depart from my usual reviewing practice and sketch it out here.)
Act I begins as the sea-nymph Medusa, fleeing her abusive family, seeks refuge at the temple of Athena, goddess of justice. After a trial by questions, the girl is taken in; soon, she becomes a priestess.
But the gods are not simply what we wish, nor do they come alone. Athena cherishes her uncle Poseidon — god of the sea and storms, ruled by his own untamed desires. Medusa, having fled his realm, fears him. Yet when they meet he is charmed, and they begin a relationship that’s one part mentoring, two parts her deflecting sexual overtures. Eventually, he tires of the game, takes what he wants by force, and leaves. In the dark, we hear Medusa weeping.
In Act II, a ravaged Medusa pleads for justice — but instead of the gentle deity she has served, she is met by Athena the war goddess,
in full armor. Athena (who has yearned for her uncle’s love) refuses to believe Medusa’s story; when at last she does, she lashes out at Medusa, blaming her. Enraged, the goddess grants a final, cruel gift, as thunder crashes and the lights go black.
In a hidden cave by the sea, Poseidon appears to ask forgiveness.
But the snake-haired Gorgon he meets can see through him, though her death-dealing eyes are covered in cloth. She sends him away,
then dismisses her faithful companion Echo. Alone at last, she unveils her heart and her ice-like eyes, swearing to live immortally in the power of hate Athena’s curse has given her.
It’s a rough, rugged story. Poynton’s instincts are true — what we learn as a brutal private invasion, a most intimate tragedy, lives also in the public archetypes of our culture. The immortal figures of Greek myth insist on a terrible truth that more than a thousand of us in America discover each day. Telling Medusa’s story tells our own.
Much in Medusa Undone is strong, powerful, and potentially healing.
Its psychological truth is stunning — from the child’s innocent hope for justice to the adult’s angry defense of being less than perfect, from the victim’s discomfort at inappropriate teasing to shocked disbelief at being blamed, from the blind selfishness of the rapist’s desire to the equally self-centered wish to make it all better.
As a modern play enacted by Classical characters, Medusa Undone blends styles — the heightened language at times mixes with (or uncannily echoes) what you’ve heard a friend or family member say. This can be disconcerting at first, but I think it’s ultimately part of the play’s virtue, the very reason it was written.
In its current incarnation, the play also boasts the remarkable talents of Deneen Melody, one of the Southland’s best young actors. Doubling down on last year’s searing Salome (at LA’s Archway Theatre), she drives this Medusa with relentless energy, terrible honesty, and a graceful integrity that completely enmeshes us in her experience. Never miss a chance to see this woman work.
The two cast members with the unenviable task of portraying gods also acquit themselves well. Derek Long’s Poseidon is uncouth from the start, yet boyishly innocent and huskily arousing as well; we recoil at his repugnant selfishness, yet we cannot disclaim him. Karen Wray finds an eerily elusive aloofness in Athena, and makes our hair stand up (like her feathered war helmet) when she turns on Medusa for bearing bad news. And Carmen Guo creates Echo — whom we usually meet as a mindless maid with a crush on Narcissus — as an elegant yet vulnerable wise woman.
Also unenviable is the challenge facing director Sonja Berggren. Faithful to her Greek models, playwright Poynton makes her drama out of much talking and a little sudden action (with the climactic violence mostly offstage). This taxes the ingenuity of the artist who must design the play’s movement — most of which, in the dancer-like elegance of Melody and Guo, in Wray’s fearsome stillness, and in Long’s tidal rushings and retreats, is economical and effective.
In the tiny 30-seat storefront, Panndora Productions marshals its modest resources to create a simple, clearly Classical set (by Yuri Okahana), with impressive thunder and lightning (thanks to McLeod Benson and Caitlyn Dominguez). Rachel Engstrom’s costumes are also simply, clearly Classical — yet touched with modern vernacular, like Poynton’s language. (And her monster headdress does the job, without excess.) T.J. Marchbanks’ fight choreography is likewise understated, and therefore sickeningly effective.
Will we ever succeed, as a species, in coming to terms with our ability to force violent sex upon one another? Medusa Undone helps to lead us there. Not because it is well-intended, but because it is (for the most part) professionally executed. As Actors’ Equity votes on whether to eliminate the decades-old “99-seat” plan, this West Coast premiere reminds us of why our small theatres exist.
Medusa Undone, by Bella Poynton, directed by Sonja Berggren.
Presented by Panndora Productions at the Garage Theatre, 251
E. 7th St., Long Beach.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm, through
Disclaimer: I have acted with and directed Deneen Melody, and am privileged to have her as a friend. If you think this might bias my view of her work, see it for yourself.