Making old things new again

Medea kills her children to avenge her husband's betrayal, Macbeth kills King Duncan to gain the crown, and Cinderella gets an assist from her Fairy Godmother to win the heart of the Prince. These are some of the best-known stories from 2,500 years of theater. Who'd have thought they had so much to say to each other?

In "Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella," Bill Rauch's improbable mashup of Euripides, Shakespeare and Rogers and Hammerstein, the three plays run simultaneously in a sort of metaplay. It's like watching three different movies on three TV screens. After a while the stories blend together in some dramaturgical kaleidoscope where themes and images and shards of meaning collide and tumble over one another to reveal new things.

The latest production of Rauch's magnificent curiosity opened Friday night on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer stage, transformed by set designer Rachel Hauck into a slick, dark, three-level dreamscape. Some of the participants have been involved with the project in previous iterations: co-director Young (her third time in that role), actor Christopher Liam Moore (his fourth turn as Lady Macbeth), actor Kate Mulligan (Chorus leader in the Medea story) and others.

This is a big production: three scripts, two directors, more than two-dozen actors in Deborah Dryden's period/fantasy costumes and masks, a six-piece orchestra visible behind a dark screen and lots of Big Ideas: ambition, royalty, magic, death, family, fate, the gods. A character called the Usher (Mark Bedard) holds things somewhat together.

Not many theaters could attempt it. Not many would. It's not a commercial play.

Which is odd if you think about it. All three plays are exemplars of "populist" theater, so how does adding populist to populist become nonpopulist? Except for its production values and lucidity quotient, it's the kind of experiment you'd expect to see in some little experimental theater and leave confused.

In its weird juxtapositions and its all-at-onceness, M/M/C is dream-like. Stories leak into each other. Medea's sons play with the pumpkin that will become Cinderella's coach. The Fairy Godmother (K.T. Vogt) makes her first, glittery entrance as Macbeth (Jeffrey King) and Banquo (Ted Deasy) meet the three witches on the moor (an unforgettable moment).

Disparate stories converge. When Lady Macbeth makes the speech about being willing to dash her babies' brains out, a voice pipes up in another context, "You are dangerous!" For Macbeth's "Is this a dagger which I see before me" monologue, Medea (Miriam A. Laube) wields a large knife as she debates how to kill her husband, Jason, and King Creon. It is an existential moment for both characters. A decision will push them past the point of no return.

The amount of script work in all this apparent synchronicity must be huge. Young has described herself and Rauch pushing little pieces of the three texts around a table with glue sticks. While it sounds like William Burroughs' cut-up technique, it's the opposite. Instead of letting randomness make its own coherence, the result was evidently to synchronize the material into a series of mini-climaxes.

Rauch says the idea came to him as a student at Harvard when he heard director Peter Sellars say that the stage has had three great populist eras: ancient Athens, Elizabethan England and the modern Broadway musical. Rauch staged the thing at Harvard in 1984, in a co-production between his Cornerstone Theatre and Los Angeles' The Actors' Gang in 1998, and at Yale Repertory in 2002.

This one has a surprisingly comic tone but always pulls back before going over the top. There is a certain giddiness in juxtaposing the frothy "Cinderella" with the two blood-soaked tragedies. But it's the choice that really sets the thing off.

The central movement of both Cinderella and Macbeth is that of a character into a world previously closed to him/her. For Medea, a barbarian who joined the Greek world by marrying the hero Jason, that's happened before we pick up her story, and now not she's being ejected from that world by Jason, who is dumping her to marry the daughter of a king.

There is something innately comical about ripping things up — cars, clothing, familiar texts, whatever. And having characters like Cinderella's comical step-relatives leavens all that heaviness, even as the shadows of the darker plays enrich the Cinderella story.

While you don't have to know the stories, it helps. There are many other angles, not the least of which is the feminist one. If Medea is a proto-feminist, then Cinderella is the anti-feminist, and Lady Macbeth's arc takes her from the one to the other. With Lady Macbeth gone and Medea whisked away in a magic chariot, we sense that what happens after happily ever after for a woman such as Cinderella is not going to be pretty.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at

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