Columbia MFA Directing’s latest thesis Medea is a post-apocalyptic tragedy that focuses on the eponymous character’s descent into madness as she faces injustices.

Medea is an Ancient Greek tragedy written by Euripedes, and director Tiffani Swalley (GSAS ‘23) chose to produce Ben Power’s modern translation for her MFA Directing thesis. Medea is primarily the story of the eponymous lead’s descent into madness after her husband Jason leaves her and their two sons to marry Kreusa, the daughter of Kreon. The main conflict in the melodrama is whether or not Medea should kill her children, Kreusa, and Kreon to enact revenge on Jason. 

Swalley chose to compliment Ben Power’s very modern translation of Medea by staging her production in a mechanical, post-apocalyptic wasteland reminiscent of District 12 in the Hunger Games franchise. Nadja Antic’s scenic design featured scaffoldings and an upside-down circular formation of metal pipes of various lengths, an industrialized nod to traditional Greek columns. The Women of Corinth were costumed in combat boots, leather, and various scraps of leather similar to Katniss Everdeen’s Mockingjay getup, and Kreon’s red vest and black jacket are noticeably similar to game maker Seneca Crane’s costume in the first Hunger Games film. However, despite the derivative aesthetic, Liz Rigdon’s costumes are cohesive and make sense within the context of the script and the set. 

There are still several inconsistencies with the design of Medea that border on being distracting. For example, during one of Medea’s most dramatic soliloquies, her two sons are in the background playing with iPhones that would be long dead following the implied nuclear apocalypse. There is also a strange moment at the very end of the play when Medea is delivering her final monologue before her ascension: a projection of snow falling, which makes little sense geographically and thematically with the text. Both of these instances drew my eye away from the focus of the scene, which should have been Emily Sullivan’s powerful performance as Medea. 

Sullivan played one of the most difficult roles in the entire Greek canon with ease. Her emotion, her inner struggle, and her pacing were all executed with unmistakable precision. She made Medea very multifaceted and complex— she was sarcastic, seductive, cunning, maternal, honest, and emotional all at once. Her descent into madness was completely believable and rational, and she clearly approached the role with honesty and determination. 

The most powerful sequence in the show came when Medea chased her sons with a knife while her Nurse, played by Rebecca Wood, ran behind her trying to stop the inevitable tragedy The chorus of Corinthian women delivered the best group choreography of the entire production. In staging this sequence, Swalley utilized the space exceptionally well by having Medea run behind the scrim and along each of the rafters above the audience on either side. Natasha Rotondaro’s lighting design shone through exceptionally during the chase, as well as Sound Designer Max Silverman’s use of ambient droning music and menacing drums over a recording of the chorus’ lines. The chase reaches its climax when Medea returns from killing her sons, dragging their bodies covered with blankets behind her and their blood smeared across her body. It is an incredibly powerful and shocking display of the character’s immense capacity for revenge and retribution. 

Another incredible lighting moment came at the very end, as Medea made her final exit from the scaffolding. As she made her ascent along the stage left rafter toward the audience, her and the bodies dragging behind her were bathed in an ethereal, heavenly light, while the chorus and Jason looked on in awe-struck horror. This scene was an incredible conclusion to a very interesting and powerful thesis.

Medea was a fascinating directing thesis production that simultaneously channeled the ancient melodrama of the original text while modernizing it for a contemporary audience. Director Tiffani Swalley and actress Emily Sullivan are absolutely two artists to watch.

Medea via Staff Writer Matthew Gay