SHARE

The lights shift, casting a warm glow on the birch trees and log houses of Fort Michili­mackinac. A chorus of Ojibwe and French settler women listen atten­tively to the keening song of a woman betrayed. The year is 1680. The woman is Medea.

And the setting is unusual for Euripides’s play, written in the 5th century B.C.

“This is the most Greek version of the play you’ll ever see,” said George Angell, director and pro­fessor of theater. “But it will seem less Greek because the actors aren’t wan­dering around wearing helmets with crests. The change of setting is only depicted visually.”

The Tower Player’s ren­dition, showing Nov. 14 – 17 in Markel Audi­torium, keeps Euripides’ original lan­guage –– albeit in trans­lation –– including place and char­acter names, but the change of setting enabled them to resolve several problems found in modern pro­duc­tions of Greek tragedy, Angell said.

“The idea is not to make this show a rehash of ‘things ancient,’ but to bring it into our common expe­rience here,” Angell said. “I was looking for a Michigan way, and the Ojibwe are a huge part of our shared her­itage.”

The more research con­ducted by the dra­maturgy class, the more they realized how strongly Greek and Native American cul­tures cor­re­sponded, dra­maturg-of-record and chorus member, junior Anne Peterson said.

“We didn’t have to force a lot to make it work,” she said.

This is seen from the myth that pre­cedes the action of Medea, told to the audience by chorus members before the show begins.

While the clas­sical Jason sails into bar­barian ter­ritory aboard his ship, The Argo, in search of the Golden Fleece, the voyageur Jason pre­sented in the Tower Player’s pro­duction paddles into bar­barian ter­ritory, via canoe, in search of valuable furs that can be sold for gold.

“At first I was very intrigued by the choice of setting. Then I was spec­u­lative. But when we began the rehearsal process, I knew it would work,” said senior Maggie Ball, who plays the title char­acter of the show. “What we’re doing is a real blend of the French and Ojibwe cul­tures; we’re making this as his­torical as pos­sible.”

One of the most sig­nif­icant ele­ments of the show arising from both Greek and Native tra­dition is the use of a full chorus –– 13 women instead of the usual two or three seen in most modern pro­duc­tions, Angell said.

“With a chorus that large, it makes the whole show political,” he said. “Everyone has to con­vince the chorus they’re right. They also rep­resent the audience, who can look to chorus for cues about how to take things.”

All of the choral inter­ludes are sung and danced, as they were in Greek pre­sen­ta­tions of the play, but to an original score com­posed by Hillsdale alumna Eileen Hal­lagan that incor­po­rates ele­ments drawn from both Native American music and 1680’s French country songs.

The Greeks divided the chorus into “strophe” and “anti­strophe,” Angell explained.  these two groups sang against each other and danced in dif­ferent direc­tions, often pre­senting dif­ferent points of view on the same sub­jects.  In this case, the “strophe” is a native chorus and the “anti­strophe” is a settler chorus.

Each sings and dances in their respective styles to high­light the con­trast in cul­tures.

“The women of Corinth are the chorus,” Peterson said. “And the other char­acters have to con­vince us of their moti­va­tions. There’s allot about moth­erhood and what it means to have children, so we talk to Medea as she decides what to do.”

In addition, Medea’s opening speeches are sung from off stage, as orig­i­nally intended.

“You never see that done either,” Angell said. “People say that there’s no sur­viving Greek music, so they don’t try.”

The Tower Players also adhere to the tra­dition of wearing masks onstage, though the speaking char­acters are exempt, as they would not be in Greek theater.

“We seldom see that,” said Angell.  “But, as it turns out, masks were used a lot in woodland Indian culture.  There is even a still-existent mask culture, The False Face Society.  Our masks were strongly influ­enced by that.”

When it came to depicting vio­lence on the stage, Angell decided on a com­promise between the Greek con­vention of locating all vio­lence off stage and “the modern trend to show every­thing,”  by placing Medea’s mourning and the children’s murder behind a scrim and a screen of birch trees.

“You’ll see the sil­hou­ettes, but not every­thing,” said Peterson.  “It’s a way to present the vio­lence without having to work through the trouble of repli­cating real­istic vio­lence on stage.  But the sug­gestion makes that moment a lot more pow­erful. We’re not in ancient Greece, so we get to do that

Angell’s dra­maturgy work went on for over a year and a half, though he says he was working on the idea as a thought process for 20 years.

“The dra­maturgy class has worked their butts off since the beginning of this summer,” said Angell.  “I’ve never seen a group work so hard.”

There is a sig­nif­icant amount of detail in the program, lobby dis­plays, and the his­torical re-enactment of a voyageur trading post set up outside of the theater entrance. The lobby will open at 7 p.m., while the show itself begins at 8 p.m.

As soon as the house opens, the chorus will begin their pre­sen­ta­tions of the action that pre­cedes the play.

It is well worth the time to take advantage of all the infor­mation available, said Peterson.. Although the audience doesn’t need to know the myth or Ojibwe culture to under­stand the show, it makes for a par­tic­u­larly rich and engaging expe­rience if they do.

“It’s just an amazing result of a team effort, said Ball.  “And it truly is a team effort. There might be a title char­acter, but it’s not about her.  It’s about rela­tion­ships and suf­fering and justice and what that means. A lot of work has gone into the show and we’re very excited to share that.”

 

                                                                    vcooney@hillsdale.edu