Even in Greek terms, Medea is a bit melodramatic. When the going gets tough, this mythic maiden slaughters and dismembers her brother to throw off the pursuing ships of Aeetes. She tricks the usurper Pelias into being killed by his own daughters. She poisons Creon and his daughter with a corrosive golden wedding dress.
Death by wardrobe malfunction. And you thought your ex had it in for you.
So what does this have to do with two Korean-American sisters growing up? Everything, insists Sue Jin Song, who premiered this solo show in Fringe 2008, and performs it again this year with stunning emotional honesty and insight.
As in most good stories, domestic issues abound in Children of Medea. Mother walks out the door and out of the family for good, leaving Cynthia and her little sister Julianne in the despondent hands of their workaholic father. Song plays out their stories with raw tenderness, probing the girls’ hardships like they’re half-healed scars.
The conscientious Cynthia, especially, finds herself in flux. Her dreams at night keep casting her as a mortal among gods. Sometimes she is Alice, lost in Wonderland. Sometimes she is Wendy, looking out the window as Peter Pan disappears. And every night Medea returns, brimming on the edges of her nightmares, crawling into view and demanding to be heard.
“Me. Me. Me-dea!” Song booms in a startling baritone, and for a few moments we lose sight completely of the young actress, barefoot and clad in jeans. In her place looms the tortured, legendary mother and wife who made every mistake and admits none. “Jason is called hero. Adventurer. Victor,” growls Medea. “I am called barbarian. Witch. Monster.”
The headstrong woman refuses to repent, attempting instead to pull back the folds of time and reveal the hot forces of love and jealousy underneath. These distant echoes – of violent secrets and raging interiors – haunt Cynthia as she hits adolescence and begins to assume the responsibilities of young adulthood.
For all the angst of growing up, the show is thrillingly lighthearted at moments, and frequently very funny. Song is a gifted comedian with a lovely, expressive face, and her myriad characters always snap into clear focus before we have to wonder who is who.
Bouncing around the periphery is Julianne, the younger sister, exuding genuine warmth and humor. Song plays her with effervescent pep, and her existential questions (do ants have thoughts, or just instincts?) pair nicely with her wrinkled-nose declamations of growing up. “Running around is fun!” she sings. “Jogging is boring. Only adults could take the fun out of running around!”
Grown-ups, it seems, start jogging when they realize they have somewhere to be. Cynthia feels this pull, drawing her inexorably out of high school and toward, perhaps, a family of her own. She and Julianne argue fiercely at moments – Song pivoting like clockwork between the two voices and physicalities – but their love and mutual support is what ultimately helps Cynthia survive.
Mamet says the perfect dramatic ending is at once surprising and inevitable. The chilling final act of Children of Medea is both, and finally we see why the forbidding murderess of myth has been hanging around Cynthia all this time.
The tiny square stage of The Bedroom has audience on two sides, evoking an air of the courtroom. It’s appropriate for a character like Medea, the focus of such judgment and condemnation. But good luck keeping your distance – Song’s wholehearted engagement with us and her effortless method of direct address draw us in before a moment’s protest.
What a thrill it is to see a fresh-faced, talented actress evoke Greek myth to such poignant and personal ends. Through Song, the children of Medea live again. Touched by the gods, indeed.