“Dying in easy, comedy is hard,” the old saying goes, and currently at Dallas Theater Center it’s proving true. DTC has begun its multiyear Classics Initiative with a doubleheader of one of the world’s great tragedies paired with an equally great comedy, running in rotating rep at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
Euripides’ Medea plays downstairs in a makeshift basement space used as a scene shop; and on the upstairs main stage is Moliere’s The School for Wives, both directed by Kevin Moriarty.
Honestly, neither of these plays is easy, but the actors in Medea, notably the inestimable Sally Nystuen Vahle in the title role, make it look so. No one goes into Medea expecting laughs — this is a tragedy about a woman whose vengeance-fueled rage results in a bloody, unthinkable act — but this production is devastatingly visceral.
The audience is ushered into the space, divided by gender, and the women are led by Christie Vela (as the sole chorus member) in the chant “keep us from the violence of love.” Then, in a space filled with work lights, ladders, paint cans and — perfect for a Greek tragedy — structural columns, the action unfolds. As great as Chris Hury (as Jason, who spurs Medea’s wrath) and Liz Mikel (Medea’s nurse) are, this is all about Vahle.
The gale-force swirl that moves from deep despair to anger to murderous rage is a master class that all thespians should be required to attend. It’s at once frightening and bewitching.
Most of this cast is also in School for Wives, with some actors added. Chamblee Ferguson, who had a small part as Aegeus in Medea, now takes the lead as Arnolphe, a man who believes he has taught the young woman Agnes (Morgan Laure) not to trust men, so he’ll have her for himself. But then she falls for the young Horace (Daniel Duque-Estrada).
No Western dramatist did satirical farce as skillfully as Moliere, and there are a lot of elements that have to be handled perfectly. This production comes close, as Ferguson’s physical comedy is, as always, first-rate. But Laure, even as an ingénue, isn’t as adept with this style of comedy as the others; she seems out of place. Hury and Mikel are again standouts as bumbling servants, and even when Vahle shows up in the second act for a small role as Agnes’ mother, it’s hard to take your eyes off her.
Jo Winiarski’s scenic design and Jennifer Caprio’s costumes (the design team is the same for both plays) are bright, colorful, fun, but fight coordinator Jeff Colangelo’s pie fight is too cautious and therefore not as thrillingly funny as it should be.
Because of the comedy factor, School gets more performances (and about three times as many seats), and it definitely has winning elements. But the whole package isn’t at the same theatrically rewarding level as Medea.
Come for the comedy, stay for the tragedy.