DRAMA REVIEW: Yuriy Tarnawsky's "Not Medea"
by Leonid Hrabovsky
Whereas Ukrainian poetry and prose have always been a part of the major developments in world literature, the genre of drama has been and today still is generations behind.
Contemporary Ukrainian avant-garde writers, such as the members of the New York Group and the Kyiv School, can be considered as part of the contemporary currents in world poetry, though their works may not have found adequate dissemination due to political repression in Soviet Ukraine on the one hand, and the sui generis conditions of diaspora literature on the other.
However, when it comes to drama, one must ask: does truly modern Ukrainian drama, such as one expects to see at the end of the 20th century, exist?
The cycle of Yuriy Tarnawsky's six plays titled "6 x 0," is a definite contribution to modernist Ukrainian drama. Sequentially the third of these plays, "Not Medea," was recently brought to the U.S. in the author's English-language version, as an experimental, work-in-progress production.
The cycle, in its original Ukrainian, is in the process of being polished, and it will be up to literary critics to evaluate it from the literary standpoint when it is released. I will limit myself to expressing my thoughts on the staging of the play which took place June 6-7, under the Resident Artists Program of Mabou Mines/Suite at the Toronada Theatre in New York City.
"Not Medea" is not simply yet another myth set in modern times. Mr. Tarnawsky's attitude to the classical story is complex and highly individual. The epigraph in the play reads: "Warning: Written with body fluids. Made in Ukraine." The structure of the play, its fabric of motives and motivations, is quite complex and multi-layered.
In the play, there are no figures from the classical prototype (Medea, Jason, their children), but only a narration of its story - grotesquely deformed in that Medea has turned into a melodramatic and calculating Multi Medea, and one character, the Man, remains alone on the stage throughout the play, his only partners a set of puppets dressed as medics who come out carrying stretchers and then remain asleep until the very end of the play. (In the staging even they were absent, having been replaced by the author's words, with the author reading from the text about them.)
The play's director, the internationally acclaimed figure of Ukrainian stage and screen Gregory Hlady, has used Mr. Tarnawsky's text, as happens frequently in modern theater as a springboard for his own improvisations and experimentations. Mr. Hlady's staging bears the stamp of an explosive talent endowed with a rich, almost limitless, imagination. So, the play itself and Mr. Hlady's staging should be viewed as two distinct works of art, although the link between them is undeniable and obvious.
Mr. HIady also introduced into the play another actress, Laila Maria Salins, a professional opera singer (mezzo soprano). One of Ms. Salin's functions was to sing, to her own accompaniment on the piano, some lines from Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs of Dead Children"), an obvious allusion to Medea's situation. Toward the end of the play, the spectators were treated to the opening of the well-known and richly associative Chaconne for solo violin by Bach.
In addition to singing, Ms. Salins created an active counterpart to the main character of the play, the Man, played by Tania Mara Miller. Ms. Miller carried with brilliance, ease and at the same time dignity the heavy load of performing a long chain of difficult and often simultaneous tasks which monodramas typically place on the shoulders of the performer.
The stage, costume, and lighting designer, Volodymyr Kovalchuk, is a brilliant partner of the performance team. His minimalist approach showed a profound understanding of the author's concept, bringing out the very essence of the play for the audience's benefit and to understand "Not Medea," one should have a good grasp of classical Greek drama. Mr. Tarnawsky has supplemented the text of his play with helpful notes but these were not available to the audience at the staging.
In the end one still wants to ask: what is "Not Medea" about? One has to concede that it is impossible to give an answer to this question in brief without resorting to oversimplification and schematization.
The play is replete with hidden historical references (including the history of theater art itself), paradoxes and enigmas. Even though the spectator may not be able to grasp each recalcitrant detail of the text aurally, he can't avoid being struck by a strong sense of logic (iron logic, one wants to say) emanating from its structure; a reading of the text only reconfirms this belief.
"Not Medea" is a tragedy. The whole is aptly conveyed through the synthesis of the text, action, sound, light and stage design. It is a tragedy set in a web of irony, grotesqueness and self-deprecation.
In spite of some shortcomings, "Not Medea" is a truly significant work in the history of modern Ukrainian drama and theater.
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 30, 1998, No. 35, Vol. LXVI
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