Horror Shot: ZJU Serves 2,400-year-old “Medea”

The ancient Greeks wrote tragedies and comedies, right?

Medea is neither — it’s a horror story, pure and simple.  And it may be the world’s oldest one, having debuted in Athens some 2,400 years ago.

For its most recent appearance — at Zombie Joe’s Undergound — director Denise Devin has pared Euripides’ full-length play down to a swift and sudden hour of terror.

Medea is not about a man who, like Oedipus, tries to counter his fate and loses to the gods. It’s about a woman who is betrayed by a man, and plans a terrible revenge.

Medea, a princess in a “barbarian” land, is swept away by her husband Jason to the Greek city of Corinth.  After they’re settled long enough to have two sons, Jason has the opportunity to wed the daughter of King Creon, removing the stain of foreignness his wife has brought.

But this will reduce Medea to the status of a concubine, and she will lose her sons to the royal family. She refuses, but cannot change the plan. So she vows revenge on all concerned.

Surprisingly, the gods don’t get in her way, or punish her afterward. Medea swiftly accomplishes her plans, and we are horrified — by her increasingly inhuman actions, and by her apotheosis as a superhuman figure at the end.

By compressing this drama into a single hour, Devin has created a superhuman challenge. The actor who plays Medea must be at a high pitch of ferocity from start to finish, swelling to a climax beyond human — and  with no “recovery time” between scenes, while the Chorus and others debate the action (as in the original).

Fortunately, ZJU has Jonica Patella.  A force on any stage, Patella drives toward her revenge with operatic power, yet along the way reveals a full range of emotions (and dynamics, from triple forte to pianissimo). She is by turns confused, contrite, reasonable, seductive, and overcome by love  — yet implacable in her hatred. Patella’s Medea is so human we can’t help but feel her sufferings; yet so obsessed that by the end, we feel we’re losing our contact with her.  As we should: She has become a monster.

As her well-intentioned but clueless mate Jason, Alex Walters delivers an accurate, almost comic portrait of the privileged male who works hard to get ahead and can’t imagine what all the fuss is about. The ensemble weaves the world around the ill-fated pair: Dale Sandler’s adamant Creon bends nicely at the crucial moment; Louise Claps delivers a stolid Nurse who can’t hide her affections; Larray Grimes’ Messenger makes us feel his shock at the horrid climax; and a Comforters/Chorus trio, led by Dawn Davis, keep Corinth real.

The staging, in Zombie Joe’s tiny black box, is artful and very effective.  From the taiko drums (Xandra-Marie Gabucan and Isaku Kageyama) to Medea’s shocking makeup, to the deft way the Comforters turn into the Chorus and back, we are made to feel the swift story’s incredibly high stakes.  And Medea’s final moment — as a dragonlike apparition (kudos to Devlin and Cristina Brunet) — perfectly translates for a modern audience the awe and horror of Euripides’ ending.

On opening night one or two nerves were noticeable, but that’s ironed out by now.  If you like horror — and are strong enough to take it straight, no sweet mixer, no ice — then step up to NoHo for Medea.  You’ll be shaken, but you won’t be sorry.
Medea, by Euripides, adapted, directed and choreographed by Denise Devin.
Presented by Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, at the ZJU Theatre, 4850 N. Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood 91601.

Fridays at 8:30,
Sundays at 7:00,
through September 11th.

Tickets: <www.ZombieJoes.com> or (818) 202-4120.