nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
October 20, 2006
With any production of Medea, the main draw is always the lead actress; whether it be Judith Anderson, Zoe Caldwell, or Fiona Shaw. The same must be said of John Epperson's modern spoof of the Euripides play presented by the Abingdon Theatre Company: the reason to see My Deah is the star-turn performance of the multi-talented Nancy Opel. Opel is simply delicious in the title role, a lusty Louisiana Medea with a fire red wig, a pleated white gown, and a score to settle. Opel gives a sassy, smart, controlled performance, conjuring laughs from the smallest double take to the larger-than-life theatrics of the play's well-known ending.
In many ways the Greek classic translates incredibly well to its new Southern setting: Medea, named My Deah here, is now a swamp witch and former beauty queen; Jason is now Gator, a college football hall-of-famer, whose former glory is due to My Deah's dealing in the dark arts; King Creon is an imposing, cigar-chomping governor; the women of Corinth become the gossipy women of Northeast Jackson, Mississippi; and Medea's faithful Nurse is now a crusty old she-devil hag—lifted largely (and admittedly) from Agnes Moorehead's eccentric character in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Opel also plays the role of the crazy Creole hag, named Lillie V., and is equally delightful here.
While entertaining, the play never really hits the target. It's witty but wordy, and not quite as funny or clever as it seems to want to be. Embedded in the text are a multitude of references from Southern literature and films (typical: one character startles another saying, "Boo!" and the second character responds, "Radley!"); while vaguely humorous, these quips hardly make you laugh aloud. Many of the jokes in My Deah often feel like they've been played before they happen. However, what Epperson does well, extremely well, is create vivid characters that we like and understand immediately. Epperson has given his talented cast plenty to gnaw on and have great fun with. He pays respectful homage to his source material, and never lets his clowning run too freely—which is both a virtue and, paradoxically, the play's shortcoming. You can't help but feel that the man who created, and is, Lypsinka could have been more outrageous with a play so ripe for parody. It's not often that you sit in a theatre hoping the playwright will go over the top—but, sadly, Epperson maintains his restraint.
However, there's much to like in this first-class production. Mark Simpson's lovely set makes excellent use of a small stage, truly making it feel like the setting of an epic play. His use of stairs, Doric columns, and marble benches conjure up not only a Mississippi plantation setting, but also a Greek amphitheatre. Simpson's elegant lighting is equally flawless, creating mood and excitement, and with seemingly little equipment to work with. Ramona Ponce's costumes not only add humor, but with so many cast members playing dual roles, they really help define the characters. How the actors go back and forth between their complicated costumes so easily, without the integrity of the characters (or the actors) ever compromised, must be a credit to Ponce's design ability—it's simply dazzling.
The talented cast includes Kevin Townley and Geoffrey Molloy, who winningly play Myrna Loy Seabrook and Brooksie Jones, respectively, a couple of town gossips who set the standards for decorum. They also do double-duty as My Deah's ill-fated young sons, Scooter and Skipper—silly, one-note characters who are barely alive to start with. Townley and Molloy are so wonderful as the gossips, you wish their portrayals of the sons were as inspired.
Jay Rogers shines as Migneon Mullen, My Deah's prim and nosy neighbor, a performance that truly makes you think he was somehow born to be a '50s character actress. In a show with everyone on stage camping it up and vying for the spotlight, Rogers deftly steals it away with the subtlest performance (albeit in drag) of the evening. With a raspy falsetto and matronly garb, Rogers takes full command of the stage merely by being on it.
The children's tutor here becomes their "Coach," sure-footedly played by the handsome Michael Hunsaker—who is the butt, full pun intended, of many a sexual innuendo. Let's say Hunsaker fills his skimpy costumes nicely and leave it at that. However there's something disturbing about this reinterpretation: when we first see Coach we believe he is a closet case, that now-familiar trope of a character who's the last to realize the truth about himself, whose sexual suppression leads to a lot of inappropriate behavior. At first this is hilarious. However, we then learn that this character is openly gay, thus rendering his pedophiliac inclinations and his hero worship of Gator merely creepy, really unfunny, and rather degrading. Outing this character is perhaps the author's biggest misstep of the evening. Which is also a shame, because Hunsaker is clearly working hard to make his character likeable.
Peter Brouwer and Lori Gardner give spirited performances as a Big Daddy-type governor and his trampy cheerleader daughter, delightfully named Simplicity, and do their best not to be upstaged by all the scenery chewing going on—although both chew their fair share themselves.
The weak link here, unfortunately, is Maxwell Caulfield as Gator (the play's Jason character), who gives a pretty forgettable performance. A talented actor, Caulfield has stepped into the role for Bryan Batt (who had to pull out last month due to a television pilot conflict), and will hopefully settle into the role with time. At this stage, however, I had to wonder if Caulfield has it in him to pull off the outrageous lampooning happening on stage. This Gator can hardly give Opel's outlandish My Deah a run for her money, and you wonder what she ever saw in him. Regrettably, as portrayed by Caulfield, Gator is so lackluster that My Deah's horrible acts of revenge are not even remotely justified. You have to wonder why somebody doesn't just say to her, "Why bother, he's so not worth it?"
Overall the production is very good, and it's frustrating that it's not brilliant (perhaps an unfair expectation on my apart). Much of the success of this production is due to the vision of its very creative director. Mark Waldrop's merry staging is seamless and stylish. Although this is truly a grand operatic tale, with multiple entrances and exits, and most of the cast playing more than one role, Waldrop keeps the action sharp and moving and the stage clean (not a small feat in a play with so many death scenes). Employing witty sight gags to keep the mood spontaneous, Waldrop's staging, along with Opel's terrific performance, will have you leaving My Deah happy.
Epperson clearly has lots of talent, but I couldn't help but wish he decided this was a half-hour skit or a one-act; instead it's a half-hour skit overwritten and stretched out to an hour and a half. Nevertheless, with his great sense of style and humor, you have to look forward to what Epperson does next. For now, Epperson has a great collaborator in Waldrop and a mega-watt star in Opel, and both make this production worth seeing.