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In tumultuous times, artists turn to the Greeks for guidance. The great tragedians knew firsthand the human costs of war—from Aeschylus, who preached against triumphalism, having fought in two improbable Greek victories over the Persians, to Euripides, who loathed the Athenian imperialist fervor that led to the protracted Peloponnesian War. Even Sophocles, paragon of Attic poise, couldn’t help indirectly responding to the militaristic policies of the ruler Pericles, whose blind vendetta against Sparta strikes all too many parallels with our own tyrant’s hell-bent “anti-terror” campaign. The word indirectly is worth underscoring, because, with the exception of Aeschylus’s Persians, the extant Greek tragedies resist addressing contemporary events by name—the sagas of a few legendary families and the myths surrounding the Trojan War provided material enough to illustrate universal patterns in society’s chronic waywardness.

Medea in Jerusalem, a new play by Roger Kirby, wants to have its classical distance and topicality too. The intention behind the work is laudably serious, but the results are uneven. Undeniably, Euripides’ tragedy—perhaps the most sensational dramatization of the dehumanizing force of vengeance—has an eerie resonance with the current Middle East quagmire. Medea is a victim who transforms herself into a killer, a domestic terrorist whose culminating act of violence against her children still causes shock waves 2,500 years later. Yet Kirby’s updating of the tale (Medea’s an Arab, Jason a Jew) muddles the thematic connections by making them too literal. Somehow the old myths are easier to buy than this realistic treatment of them.

Stylistically, the play has trouble establishing itself. A spotlit radio brings us regular updates on the escalating suicide bomber attacks—not exactly the smoothest way of fleshing out the historical context, and a real drag on dramatic momentum. Chorus members relate odd bits of exposition (Medea’s dad was a Christian ale-maker; she’s a Muslim electrical engineer). But this new information doesn’t so much enhance character credibility as call attention to the playwright’s difficult assignment.

The actors, directed by Steven Little, are encouraged to hold melodramatic poses, which only adds to the formal clumsiness. Still, the cast (particularly Rebecca Wisocky as Medea, Sean Haberle as Jason, and Ariel Shafir as Jason’s brother) vigorously commit themselves to a production that, for better or worse, values earnestness over artistry.

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