Review: ‘The Medea Hypothesis’ at Central Works

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: *****)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(The world premiere of “The Medea Hypothesis”, produced by Central Works Theatre, plays at the Berkeley City Club from May 18 through June 23, 2013).

The reworking of the timeless themes and characters of the Greek theatrical genius has been a staple of western theatre for centuries. With “The Medea Hypothesis”, Central Works makes a respectable contribution to this tradition with a remarkably accomplished playwriting debut by Marian Berges.

Berges’ take on the story is  fascinating. Medea, in the original, is a witch or sorceress, which might be considered an archetype of the destroying mother. This negative view of motherhood is not popular nowadays, with most of us preferring the positive image of an all nurturing “Earth Mother” or the Godess Gaia. Devotees of Carl Jung will note that every positive image has its dark shadow. Playwright Berges is interested in paleontologist Peter Ward’s suggestion of a “Medea hypothesis” as a counter to the “Gaia hypothesis”. Ward suggests that our “mother earth” may not be as nurturing as we would like to believe but, in fact, is prone to mass extinction and doesn’t really care much about biological life.

Reimagined as a highly successful contemporary fashion designer, this Medea (named “Em”) is a loving and attentive mother, but the pressures of age, a philandering husband, a distant adolescent daughter and her curiously mysterious seductive assistant Ian (in a superlatively creepy performance by the excellent Cory Censoprano) are weaving a terrifying net about her psyche.

Jan Zvaifler as Em and Cory Censoprano as Ian in "The Medea Hypothesis" by Marian Berges at Central Works. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.
Jan Zvaifler as Em and Cory Censoprano as Ian in “The Medea Hypothesis” by Marian Berges at Central Works. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Initially charming, capable and sympathetic, Em’s gradual deterioration and descent into vengeful madness is chillingly depicted by Jan Zvaifler. We know from the beginning that this good mother will ultimately turn bad, and Ms. Zvaifler does an excellent job in taking us by the hand along that dark pathway.

In addition to the aforementioned Cory Censoprano, Ms. Zvaifler is supported by additional excellent work from Joe Estlack in an astonishingly versatile multi-character performance and the young Dakota Dry as her daughter (who appears only in video projection).

Director Gary Graves makes certain that this production is never dull and it flies by in seventy five minutes without intermission.

It is not perfect. It is sometimes too wordy, and it is debatable whether the extensive use of video projections is the best way to tell this story. But it is full of theatrical magic and excitement and genuine emotion, and achieves a true cathartic effect. It is also not without its humorous moments, in particular, an extremely funny scene set in a French/Swiss restaurant that offers some much welcome comic relief.

Em’s ironic complaint, that “one does not have an unlimited supply of empathy”, is a marvelous bit of irony, hitting just the right note of horror and humor and truth.

That’s damned good writing, and in this remarkable debut playwright Marian Berges has shown us work of which she and her colleagues can be justly proud.

For further information, click here.

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“The Medea Hypothesis” by Marion Berges, produced by Central Works. Director: Gary Graves. Video: Pauline Luppert. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. 

Ian: Cory Censoprano. Sweetie: Dakota Dry. Carl/Christopher/Dad/Restaurant Onwer/Waiter: Joe Estlack. Em: Jan Zvaifler.

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