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Eccentricity and experimentation still bring success:

There are very few places in New York where you'll find dreadlocked women reminiscent of Ani DiFranco mingling next to elderly ladies in tan pumps and pearl earrings; where brownies are served as an amuse-bouche before experimental theater. Now in its forty-third season, La MaMa E.T.C. is one such place that can draw a crowd as eclectic as the multicultural casts assembled by its famed founder and artistic director, Ellen Stewart.

Before a recent showing of "Medea" and "The Trojan Women," a La MaMa employee declared to the audience "Ellen Stewart will come out to make an announcement." A few minutes later, Stewart herself emerged ringing a bell. A reverent hush fell over the crowd and dreadlocks and pearl earrings alike were deferentially attentive. The few who dared continue their conversations were angrily shushed. There was no need, of course, to introduce Ms. Stewart. Over the past four decades, she has become an attraction unto herself-even hosting an international symposium for directors in Italy (for the price of $2,850), during which, "One special evening is reserved for Ellen Stewart, founder and artistic director of La MaMa E.T.C. to speak to the group about her work in the theatre." Indeed, Stewart was clearly amongst admirers as she announced the evening's program and ended by saying "Just bear with us. We are a little unusual." Her comment drew the sort of laughs that could only come from people who knew and expected the unconventional both from the theater's productions and the legendary woman who gave birth to them.

Like Ms. Stewart, La MaMa seems to have built a reputation on being a bit strange. Even the bathroom, where a sign admonishes patrons that the "toilet is most delicate," seemed to feed into the ripe eccentricity that is associated with the theater and its founder. Stewart's revival of Andrei Serban's productions of "Medea" and "The Trojan Women" proved to be true to form. Certainly, "a little unusual", the two plays offered interesting and occasionally provocative takes on the classic tragedies with mixed results.

The audience was slowly led into "Medea" by actors holding candles and whispering in tones eerily redolent of Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" movies-in Ancient Greek no less. While waiting behind a crowd of people with nothing visible except the actors doubling as ushers, I felt as though I were about to enter some sort of Ancient Greek haunted house. After the audience was seated, however, the play began a very static and tepid hour of "fragments" of Euripides' tragedy of a woman scorned. While there were some marvelous moments like the stichomythia between "Medea" and "Jason," which was charged with palpable bitterness, the production evoked very little. The audience's imagination, which the Greeks were smart enough to exploit, was underutilized throughout the play. When Medea did the unspeakable and killed her children, there were no offstage noises to force the audience into imagining the atrocities and when the children's bodies reappeared onstage, they were clothed in the same perfectly white, untouched nightgowns they wore before the horrific act. Without any tangible signs of the murders (they looked as though they could have been sleeping), our minds were never forced to witness the unthinkable violence.

If "Medea" was something of an Ancient Greek haunted house, "The Trojan Women" was like an Ancient Greek "De la Guarda." A welcome contrast to the inertness of "Medea," "The Trojan Women" was a dynamo shifting between two lofted stages and the floor, with actors unapologetically shoving and dancing their way around the bewildered and enthralled audience members. But most importantly, the brilliance of "The Trojan Women" was grounded in what was disappointingly absent in "Medea." The rape of Helen occurs during a particularly orgiastic scene and the audience members, entangled amongst dancing and singing, were compelled to watch. Playing on the audience's voyeuristic desires, the production forced the viewers to see something horrific and fascinating without allowing them to look away. The actors tantalized the audience with an unsettling combination of highly stylized revelry and rape, which made Helen's eventual execution even more horrendous. Right as the executioner swings an ax to Helen's throat, the lights go out. [Wu]

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