Arts & Events

New: Theater Review: 'The Medea Hypothesis'--Central Works at the City Club

By Ken Bullock
Saturday June 08, 2013 - 11:16:00 AM

"Only children aren't happy. Adults are depressed."

Opening and closing with the projection of a young girl (Dakota Dry) wearing a crown and telling a scary fairytale, which hints at the mother being a witch, Central Works' premiere of Marian Berges' 'The Medea Hypothesis' focuses on a present-day fashion designer, Em (Jan Zvaifler), whose unseen husband Justin (Em laments that she "created" him, as Medea ensured Jason's success) leaves her for a younger woman, while she fears her daughter's becoming estranged ... an update of Euripides' tragic tale.  

Berger's quick, perceptive--and witty--play is staged in an impressive, fast-paced style by Central works artistic co-director Gary Graves, a succession of soliloquies by Em (which give Jan Zvaifler the spotlight to display her distinctive talent), alternating with dialogue with her interlocutors--in video projection, Skype-style,, with daughter (Dakota Dry) and the father of the bride, an Eastern European gangster-type, Carl (Joe Estlack), wearing shades, voice purring with innuendo ... also, speaking in person, a younger plumber, Christopher, Em engages in a fling with, as well as her demented dad, hunched in a wheelchair, a moustacho'ed waiter and restaurant owner in a Parisian fondue restaurant (all played by Joe Estlack), and with her suited factotum Ian (Cory Censosoprano), who--when not giving himself a manicure--sympathizes with, cross-examines, finally goads her towards revenge ... There's even a point when Christopher and Carl have a murky Skype tete-a-tete, Joe Estlack his own interlocutor ... 

As is typical of Central Works, a production in the studio-sized salon at the City Club gains more theatrical amplitude, through careful choice of script and its development, along with prowess in technical design (costumes by Tammy Berlin, lights by Gary Graves, video by Pauline Luppert, sound by Gregory Scharpen) and excellence in stage direction and acting (Joe Estlack, always a fine performer, co-founder of the premiere physical theater troupe mugwumpin, has had few opportunities like his romp here through several roles to show what a riveting actor he can be), than is often found on the big stages of the Bay Area's highly-touted professional houses.  

"My hands look terrible--and what about global warming?" Berges' play gets its title from a hypothesis that Mother Earth, like a bad mother (but good Medea!), kills off her more highly developed children (or they suicide themselves), bringing the world back to a microbial biosphere. A key moment of the Greek tragedy has the (female) head of chorus, realizing what Medea intends, admonish her about human moral law, to be met with the heroine saying: "I have no choice, but forgive you those words, as you haven't suffered as I do."  

Em suffers, but not so uniquely, just as many modern women, however accomplished, who've been discarded. In antiquity--especially Ovid's version--Medea was a witch. The phrase gets thrown around as an insult or a joke in 'The Medea Hypothesis'--Em denies having "powers"--but the deceptive weapons of revenge (a watch, a dress, a lipstick case) are laced with Polonium-210, a brew as potent as any centaur's blood or other classical poison. 

With its breeziness, underpinned by the darkness of passion and resentment, 'The Medea Hypothesis' nonetheless has something vague about it at certain points, maybe amplified by the abundance of soliloquies and dialogues with video images, which somewhat mutes or undercuts the very grave modern ending, something lacking the inevitability and specificity of Euripides' classic--a tragic, cosmic fate becomes the "merely" lamentable accident of character and choice in an unstable universe for modern theater, but leaves a space for a different kind of reflection and realization.  

'The Medea Hypothesis' is one of Central Works' better things--and that's saying a lot!  

Thursdays through Saturdays at 8, Sundays at 5 through June 23 at the Berkeley City Club, 3215 Durant Avenue (near the UC campus), $28 online, sliding scale of $28-$15 at the door. (Thursdays, pay what you can at the door.) Reservations/info: 558-1381,