Revolving Dervishes

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Photo by Caroline Mardok

Medusa Volution

Written by Sophie Amieva and Susu Bagert

Created and directed by Sophie Amieva

Presented by Samieva Theater Company at happylucky no. 1, NYC

February 8-24, 2019

If the first word that you would use to describe Medusa, one of three Gorgon sisters, is monster, the conceptually ambitious Medusa Volution would like to change your mind. Created, co-written (with Susu Bagert), and directed by Sophie Amieva, Medusa Volution packs a millenia-spanning deconstruction of the Othering of women into the extremely intimate space of Brooklyn's happylucky no. 1. Carol S. Lashof's one-act Medusa's Tale, originally published in 1991, offers an interesting point of comparison. While it too works to rehabilitate Medusa in a feminist context, where it focuses on a primarily naturalistic recounting of Medusa's rape by the god Poseidon and reimagining of her encounter with demi-god Perseus, Amieva and Bagert's play employs Medusa as the fulcrum of a wide-ranging, polyvocal blurring of ancient and contemporary narratives performed by a diverse, all-female or non-binary cast. 

"Volution" denotes a revolving movement, here perhaps suggestive of the way in which the play and its concerns revolve around and return to the figure of Medusa, or perhaps, and more significantly, suggestive of the historical cycles of misogyny by which women, real and fictional, who step beyond any number of prescribed roles or behaviors are represented as monstrous. The play positions a forceful example of such policing early on, with reporter Maria Nazarine (Gabrielle Young) -- whose name evokes the closest thing that Christianity has to a goddess -- being constantly interrupted as she tries to introduce the story of Medusa's trial by criticisms from two Grotesques (Kayla Juntilla and Chandler Eliah Eason) whose maleness is signified by oversized stuffed genitals. Tellingly, while Maria keeps modifying her delivery in response to their gendered insults, critiques, and explicit jokes, the Grotesques respond aggressively when she makes a single dirty joke with a man as its butt. Medusa's trial itself echoes the imbalance of Maria's situation: in the midst of what is referred to as a #MeToo moment for the serial-sexual-assaulter classical gods, it is nevertheless and emblematically Medusa who is on trial for fornication rather than Poseidon for rape.

Later, Portia (Kayla Juntilla) acts as Medusa's defense lawyer, presumably turning the courtroom experience gained in The Merchant of Venice towards new and better ends. The trial represents one part of the play's much larger mosaic. It looks back to ancient creation stories, for instance, outlining the initial dominance of matriarchal goddess figures and their later supersession by gods, a process that included the transformation of the serpents and serpent forms associated with the goddesses into monsters and enemies to be slain. This recasting of the serpent appears, of course, in the Christian creation story, and the play engages in its own reimagining of Adam (in a very funny performance by Julia Cavagna) as an oblivious bro who watches too much porn and of Eve's (Irina Varina) biting the apple as a bid for independence. Apples and a broom, in fact, are the play's only props, and one of these apples figures prominently in a series of vignettes (additionally, the floor-to-ceiling windows at the rear of the performance space look into what could be interpreted as an inaccessible garden). The vignettes, in which a variety of women recount experiences ranging from a first Catholic confession to a less-than-inspiring date to a divorcée's questioning of her pursuit of the default goals of the "girl dream," do an excellent job giving voice to the internalization of patriarchal norms by which women participate in their own oppression. Salome's (Chandler Eliah Eason) telling of her story renders John the Baptist's beheading as a sort of self-defensive mirror of Medusa's beheading. Earlier, the play has pointed out that Medusa's body, once she is cursed, becomes itself a weapon, and perhaps that idea carries over (along with an apple) into an extended final dance movement section. This wordless coda features a Medusa (Sophie Amieva) whose movements are redolent of struggle and resistance, the deliberate, almost dreamy pace of which contrasts with the rest of play.

Medusa Volution boasts impressive use of movement throughout, a number of evocatively written passages, and several striking images, including a climactic tableau and a use of plastic tarps that recalls (and inverts) the end of Julie Taymor's Titus. Everyone in the ensemble -- Amieva, Cavagna, Eason, Juntilla, Young, Julia Gu, and Irina Varina -- gets a chance at some point to be the focus, and all turn in strong performances, with Eason's one of the standouts, both as a Grotesque and as Salome. A patriarchal and patrilineal system requires control of women's agency and, more particularly, their sexuality, resulting in institutions set up to do just that. Medusa Volution limns a monstrous regiment of women both supernatural and mortal in order to unsettle perspectives normalized by that system, and you don't even need a mirrored shield to watch it. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler

Sounds fascinating, very funny, provocative. Can it play in Philadelphia?

Submitted by Sara Sobel on February 16, 2019 - 12:15

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