Mommy complex: The Medea Effect

Talisman Theatre’s English-language debut of The Medea Effect twists feminist and Freudian themes into a tense psychological drama.

Jennifer Morehouse as Ada.
Photo by Johanna Heldebro.

Talisman’s Theatre’s The Medea Effect, written by Suzie Bastien and directed by Emma Tibaldo, is a play that sticks the knife in and twists. Ada (Jennifer Morehouse) and Ugo (Eloi ArchamBaudoin) duel in the realm of Freudian analysis, aware of their clichéd roles while simultaneously remaining trapped in them.

Ada is an actress convinced that she is a monster after abandoning her son, so she believes she is the woman born to play Medea. Ugo is a director whose fixation on Euripides’ Medea is fueled by his own feelings of abandonment by his sick mother. Ada tells Ugo that she once played Medea on stage, but left midway through the performance. She is looking for a chance to finish what she started.

Their meeting begins a vigorous bout of tearing open psychological wounds. However, at the forefront is a power struggle rooted in gender. Ada is a woman with a story no one wants to hear: the woman who abandons her child. However, she demands that Ugo, along with the audience, be silent and listen.

The play’s feminist themes call to mind the countless discussions in popular media about women’s evolving role in society. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s widely discussed Atlantic Monthly article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” immediately springs to mind. Ada’s compulsion to distance herself from her son stems from his resemblance to the husband who betrayed her, but is also tied to a broader theme of the sacrifices a woman makes when she has children.

Slaughter’s article talks about the modern woman’s struggle to balance independent success in her career with being the perfect mother. Ada encompasses this modern woman’s self-loathing guilt in the dark moments when she feels that she has failed as a mother and, in the eyes of society, as a woman as well. The love a mother has for her children can be a beautiful gift but also a terrifying burden, as Ada suggests when she asks Ugo, “Have you ever had something cling to you?”

The weight and emotional intensity in Ada’s story fills the space of the necessarily bare set. However, the few set pieces on stage are used well to mirror the shift of power between Ada and Ugo. At one point, Ugo climbs a ladder on stage as he desperately tries to assert himself over Ada’s steadfast strength. Ada literally and figuratively takes him down a rung as she forces him to hear her story.

The audiovisual elements of the play are effective in transporting the audience to the sensory-rich atmospheres of Ada’s and Ugo’s stories. A projected image of a foamy tide washing over the stage, mixed with sounds of waves and wind and an eerily calm, blue light set the scene for Ada to reveal the story of her son’s death. Ugo eventually acquiesces to Ada’s driving will to be heard and becomes but a player in her story. Their separate grief spins together, as Ada becomes the mother who abandoned Ugo and Ugo becomes the son Ada abandoned.

Despite the psychological nature of the play — actors playing actors and directors — there is no topsy-turvy, Waiting-for-Godot-esque ontological self-examination. The script is fuelled by emotion. Cerebral types who get squeamish around heavy melodrama might be squirming in their seats with this one.

In the end, it is the timeless figure of Medea who speaks through Tibaldo, Bastien, Morehouse, and Ada. She triumphs over the stage and the audience as the cathartic release of her story washes over us. Nadine Desrochers’ seamless translation affords English-speaking audiences access to this dark tale, and makes The Medea Effect a profound example of the cultural experience Talisman offers to the theatre-going community of Montreal. ■

The Medea Effect runs through Oct. 20 at Théâtre La Chapelle (3700 St-Dominique), 8 p.m., $24.50 – $28.50

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