Medea isn't the kind of character who needs additional flaws heaped on. In fact, it's a testament to Greek tragedy that Euripides, her most famous chronicler, made the mythological figure sympathetic at all. Rather than getting revenge on her cheatin' husband Jason by killing him, she kills their children. That choice is what makes her story interesting, but it's not going to get her a fan club any time soon.
Yet playwright Marian Berges, in "reconfiguring" the myth as The Medea Hypothesis for Central Works, seems determined to make Medea even less endearing. Her anti-heroine Em (Jan Zvaifler) is no towering, dignified titan but a flighty, self-absorbed flibbertigibbet. She's allegedly some kind of media mogul, but, never able to find things in her purse or remember whether she's supposed to be recovering her daughter (Dakota Dry) from her husband or repelling her, she seems too incompetent to have obtained any kind of power. Even her assistant Ian (Cory Cenosoprano) belittles her, to which she can respond only with lines like, "Gimme my goddamn phone!"
Zvaifler, who's always an unflinching performer in the company's snug venue in the Berkeley City Club, makes Medea's famous act seem plausible — no small feat — but for the wrong reasons. She moves toward violence not out of a slowly building sense of purpose but out of sheer unpredictability. In each successive moment, she might as well commit one deed as any other.
Berges' play as a whole suffers from the same problem. Under the direction of Gary Graves, it often doesn't even feel like a play because it relies so heavily on video projection (by Pauline Luppert) to show the other side of Em's copious video phone calls. While those projections often feature Joe Estlack, whose chameleon-like performance in multiple roles is one of the show's chief pleasures, the enormous screen overshadows the live actors, reducing a venue that's usually thrillingly intimate to two-dimensions.
Over at the Cutting Ball Theater, playwright Andrew Saito's Krispy Kritters in the Scarlett Night also strains empathy, but with characters who delight in the disgusting. In this world, the human body's least pleasant needs, functions, and byproducts (some real, others Saito's surreal invention) are a source not of shame but of celebration, probably because death somehow looms near for every character, be it Pap Pap (David Sinaiko), the wheelchair-bound veteran of dubious honor who saves the water that he'd cleaned his genitals with; or the pink-clad, eerily perky Nurse Candy (Maura Halloran), who's "managed" her melanoma. This menagerie, under the fleet direction of Rob Melrose, trots out lines like, "That bastard let my twat rot" or "Well I'll be a festering pimple," as if they're talking about the weather. Drumhead (Wiley Naman Strasser), a mortician, leaps on to and passionately kneads the flesh of his corpses as if physical affection could bring them back to life. More egregiously, he accepts the affection of Snowflake (Mimu Tsujimura), the whore who loves him, so he can mirror it to Scarlett (Felecia Benefield), the one who doesn't.
Where Shakespeare found providence in the fall of a sparrow, Saito finds poetry in them, inspiring tenderness for images (often of critters) that would usually make stomachs curdle with disgust. While his Drumhead is often an abhorrent john, he's also a naïve, mordantly funny little boy. "Butterfingers, that's me," he says, accidentally breaking one of his corpse friends. "Brittle fingers, that's you." In Strasser's animalistic portrayal, Drumhead unleashes his imagination with enough force to wipe the world clean of others' associations. Yet in Drumhead's exploitative quest for transcendent sex, he doesn't see that his own rich consciousness can give him more pleasure than any earthly possession, as it has the power to make trash into treasure.
If Saito's play takes an unfortunate turn toward melodrama at the end, complete with an ailing grandmother (Marjorie Crump-Shears) and a large sum of money, it nonetheless succeeds as poetry that lifts the lowdown so we can give it a fresh look. Through the power of Saito's language, the creepy and "krispy" become downright comely.