Theater's Contribution to the Women’s Movement
In the ancient Greek myth “Medea,” the lead female character commits infanticide and offends audiences for her unthinkable acts of violence. Today, however, theater companies are attempting to elicit a different response — one of empathy for Medea as an ill-treated woman.
That’s the point of view of two recent productions for which Jesse Dreikosen served as scenic designer. An assistant professor of scene design and head of design and technology in UI’s Theatre Arts department, Dreikosen has created sets nationwide, attempting each time to offer a fresh take on a story through the artistry of a space.
Traditionally, the “Medea” myth begins after the eponymous character helps her soon-to-be husband, Jason, achieve heroic status. She then leaves her home as they begin a new life in a foreign land. The couple have two sons, and then the onstage tragedy unfolds. Jason announces his plans to leave Medea for a royal princess, and Medea, humiliated and angered by his infidelity on the heels of her sacrifice, kills Jason’s mistress and then her own children — an act she knows will cause her husband heartache. Then comes what traditional audiences fretted most: Medea is swept off by her grandfather in a dragon-drawn chariot, escaping any semblance of what they deemed justice.
According to Dreikosen, traditional productions of “Medea” have pitted the female protagonist as an evil, vengeful woman. But Dreikosen and his crew had a different view. Raised almost singlehandedly by his mother and grandmother, Dreikosen wanted to explore “how we live in a society in which young girls are not presented with the same opportunities as their male counterparts.”
“Medea: Her Story,” which debuted on UI’s campus in fall 2016 and was produced by Dreikosen and colleagues Kelly Quinnett and Matt Foss, combined several adaptations of the myth and explored Medea as a child — something that hasn’t been done, Dreikosen said. “Not Medea,” written by playwright Allison Gregory, debuted at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in West Virginia last July and was a contemporary look at a single mother struggling to raise her children in the 21st century.
In designing both sets, Dreikosen, whose interest lies in how people’s energies can be manipulated through feng shui, considered how certain colors and spaces would draw forth emotional reactions from the audience.
In “Not Medea,” he created a theater-in-the-round, so the audience would be more likely to feel empathy for Medea — an attempt to raise awareness of women’s issues.
“It worked really well because it put Medea right in the center,” Dreikosen said. “By jutting out the stage into the audience and not having side walls skew the viewpoint, it felt like you were part of that chamber that she was trapped in.”
Onstage, Dreikosen ensured that the bedroom had a contemporary flair with such features as a platform bed and wood floors, along with a large window that served as a glimpse into the heavens — and a nod to the play’s ancient Greek origins.
In “Medea: Her Story,” Dreikosen used color theorem to coincide with the recurring acts of violence. The lighting had a subtle tinge of red, and each time innocence was lost, including the killing of Medea’s children, Medea popped a red balloon. The stage’s backdrop consisted of three walls that correlated with the portrayal of Medea’s three life phases — childhood, adolescence, and mother and wife.
In set design, “it always comes down to three questions,” Dreikosen said. “What is the story we’re trying to tell, why are we doing this play and what are we trying to tell our audience.”
With Dreikosen’s back-to-back Medea productions, he said he feels proud to know that the stories contributed to the conversation on gender inequality.
“The curse of inequality is on humankind, not womankind,” Dreikosen said. “We really explored those human moments that tell us about what kind of woman she is and what kind of person she is. We found a way that we can all relate to her.”