Fraud and Fury

Power stands at the center of Arizona Rep's 'Medea,' Invisible Theatre's 'Camping'

Power--how to wield it, how to abuse it. That's the subject of two plays, written nearly 2 1/2 millennia apart, that opened in Tucson last week. A witch-princess exacts revenge in Medea at the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre, while an American president squares off against an ambitious industrialist in Camping With Henry and Tom at Invisible Theatre.

Warren G. Harding is the president in question in Mark St. Germain's Camping With Henry and Tom. Remember Harding? Probably not, unless you're an American-history enthusiast, and the Teapot Dome scandal rings a bell. Harding was initially, in the early 1920s, a popular president, but his administration was probably the most corrupt in American history, at least until George Dubya Bush came along. To his credit, Harding was never directly implicated in the scandals, and St. Germain depicts him as merely an amiable front man for a political machine; as Roger Owen plays him at IT, he's tender-hearted and intellectually bland. Not the sort of personality you'd expect to be able to stand up to a combative Henry Ford and cynical Thomas Edison out in the Maryland woods.

The play is based very loosely on an actual camping trip involving those three men in the summer of 1921, but the plot is largely St. Germain's invention. Ford spirits Harding and Edison away from their entourage, but strands them all when he hits a deer on a remote forest road. While the men wait to be rescued, Ford has all the more time to reveal what he's after: He wants Harding to facilitate the sale, at a rock-bottom price, of a hydroelectric facility that Ford envisions as a sort of huge private-enterprise version of what a decade later would become the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Ford will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and that includes blackmailing Harding, whose personal life has not exactly been impeccable. Meanwhile, Edison, who has no great love for either man (or, apparently, just about anybody), sits by and insists that his companions "think of me as Switzerland--cold and neutral."

For the most part, the underwritten Edison (amusingly, crustily played by Roberto Guajardo) is there merely to provide wisecracks that lighten the escalating conflict between Ford and Harding. As Ford, James Blair modulates his character's development with skill, beginning with outward affability and only gradually revealing what a nasty specimen he is. Owen elicits great sympathy for Harding, essentially a nonentity who almost offhandedly displays some nobility of character.

Nearly 90 years after the time of the play, we know that Ford would not get what he wanted, and within two years, Harding would be dead of natural causes. The interest here is not waiting to see what happens in the end, but watching what happens along the way, and enjoying how these men interact. Under the neat direction of Betsy Kruse Craig, and enhanced by the evocative but compact set design by Tom Benson and subtle sound by Gail Fitzhugh, Camping With Henry and Tom is an easy hike into the wilderness of men's souls.

But what of women's souls? Specifically, that belonging to Medea, the king's daughter who betrayed her family so her lover, Jason, could make off with the king's golden fleece? Turns out that once she is in Argos and has borne Jason two sons, Medea is the one who gets fleeced.

Jason, as politically ambitious as Henry Ford in Camping, is abandoning Medea to marry a Corinthian princess and move up in the world. Because Medea is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun god, she has certain powers that make men wiser than Jason hesitate to cross her, and Jason's future father-in-law, King Kreon, tries to banish her before she can strike back. Nevertheless, Medea manages to exact a terrible revenge.

Euripides' Medea, in a fluid, colloquial translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, is onstage via Arizona Repertory Theatre. It's a student production directed with steadiness and grace by faculty member Brent Gibbs, but overall, it's an uneven effort redeemed by four strong young actors.

In the title role, Amy Shuttleworth begins at an elevated pitch of rage and despair, and has little room to rise above that. Yet her sustained anguish and fury is admirably believable, entirely free of artificiality, and her stage presence is magnetic. As Jason, Jeremy Selim is not just some selfish scumbag, but a man who has convinced himself that he's doing something principled in everyone's best interests.

The play's opening minutes belong to Celia Madeoy as Medea's nurse; she delivers her expository material with natural cadences and well-channeled disgust and anger. Late in the play, Javan Nelson makes a vivid appearance as a servant bringing bad news.

Some of the other acting, though, is far less evocative; in particular, the actors playing the two kings (one antagonistic, the other friendly) lack authority, and members of the chorus of women are uneven in their line delivery. At least as a physical presence, they bring naturalism to what can seem to be more an act of ritual than a work of theater; the characters interact face-to-face, as a 21st-century audience expects them to, instead of merely delivering speeches from behind masks.

And therein lies a bit of a problem: As much as Euripides' emotional themes may continue to resonate more than 2,000 years later, Greek drama, as it was practiced in his lifetime, was alien to our contemporary aesthetic experience. Perhaps to bring the characters closer to us, director Gibbs has set the action in a Greek village in the 1930s. This might make sense in, say, Antigone, where the authority figures can easily be rendered as jackbooted fascists, but it doesn't do much for Medea; transformed to fisher folk, these larger-than-life characters are seriously diminished, and all their talk of Greek gods makes little sense.

Still, Breanna Riley's scenic design, Zachary Ciaburri's lights and Patrick Holt's costumes are all professional-grade, and reinforce this depiction of a scorned woman's hellish fury.

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