In one of the most horrific events in theatrical literature, Euripides’ vengeful Medea answers her husband’s betrayal by murdering their offspring.
Michael Elyanow recalls watching the Abbey Theater’s acclaimed Broadway production of the Greek tragedy and thinking “Oh, my God, is anybody going to stop her from killing her children? I had forgotten that it’s part of the play that all of these people feel powerless to do anything about it.”
The Minneapolis-based playwright found himself imagining the consequences if someone did step in to protect Medea’s unfortunate children.
“I wondered what would have happened to those kids if they had survived that tragedy,” Elyanow said. “Where would they be today, and how would they get through the day?”
Using those questions as a springboard, Elyanow wrote, “The Children,” now in its world premiere run at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena. The play begins with a member of “Medea’s” ubiquitous Greek chorus, “the least likely person you would expect,” Elyanow said, magically spiriting the imperiled brother and sister away from their mother.
The children, their rescuer and a nursemaid who comes along uninvited, end up not in ancient Athens, however, but in present day Athens, Maine, in the middle of a hurricane.
Featuring puppetry, special effects, stories within stories and a major plot twist, the play “just started revealing itself to me as this wildly theatrical piece about storytelling,” Elyanow said. “It’s about how we tell ourselves stories, how memory is really storytelling, and how we use storytelling to get through our days in the here and now.”
A familiarity with the Medea myth is helpful, but not necessary, to appreciate the play, which recaps the basic elements of the original myth during the action.
The children are portrayed by life-sized, hauntingly vulnerable puppets designed by Susan Gratch. Sonny Valicenti as The Man in Slacks and Paige Lindsey White as The Woman in Sundress are the adult brother and sister. They manipulate the puppets that represent their child alter egos.
The Woman of Corinth (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), who breaks out of the anonymous Greek chorus to perform her good deed, and the Nursemaid (Jacqueline Wright) take refuge with their young charges in an empty house near the sea. The local sheriff (Daniel Blinkoff), tasked with evacuating the area, assumes that the strangely dressed and oddly spoken quartet must be participants in the nearby Renaissance Faire.
The broad humor of misunderstanding eventually gives way to a starker reality and to a sense that no one may be quite what they seem and that far from being out of danger, the children are still at risk.
Director Jessica Kubzansky, Boston Court’s co-artistic director who is highly regarded for her work in local and national theater, said that she was drawn to “The Children” for several reasons.
Elyanow’s play “is funny, but rich and deep, with important and powerful questions at its core,” she said, “and I love plays that are about beautiful language and sound ideas and that ask deep questions for the mind and the heart. This is a play that does all of those things for me.”
Kubzansky also enjoyed the “huge and exciting challenge” posed by what in some ways were the play’s competing needs.
“It had to be theatrical and yet have enough realism that a character could sit down and make a sandwich,” she said. “They’re also in the middle of a Category 5 hurricane, yet the elements can’t be so dark that the audience can’t laugh.”
“I thought if I started off right away with dour Greek tragedy,” Elyanow observed, “it would be difficult for the audience to get through to the play’s message of love and hope and survival. And I love stories that lull you into a sense of engagement and safety and then bring in a darker element.”
The signal shift from comedy to tragedy occurs with one character’s jolting monologue that proves to be the harbinger of something even more disturbing to come, before the play’s poignant resolution.
Elyanow, a playwright and screenwriter whose parody of TV sitcoms, “The Idiot Box,” made its critically acclaimed Los Angeles premiere at the Open Fist Theatre in 2007, “has some powerful stuff on his mind,” Kubzansky said, laughing. “And Greek drama is always about something primal. Its epic nature allows the moments of real truth underneath it to be even more powerful.”
Elyanow, who has directed playwriting workshops at regional theaters and taught playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University, Emerson College and Hampshire College, has two new plays in the works: “Robyn is Happy” was workshopped at the Hanger Theatre in November; and “A Lasting Mark,” a Hartford Stage commission, was a Manhattan Theatre Club 2011 Reading Series selection.
Working with Kubzansky and with Boston Court drama consultant Emilie Beck on his play “was revelatory,” Elyanow said. “They challenged me to answer the right kind of questions. It’s one thing to have help with the shaping of the story, but another to put in the actors and the sound and the puppets and then say, what are we missing, where can we make things stronger or clearer? It was a nonstop dialogue, a conversation that I think ended just two days before the premiere.
“It was also exciting to walk in every day to see another element of the set or the lighting or the sound that moved me to tears,” Elyanow added.
Finding a home for his play at Boston Court, Elyanow said, “was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my creative life. They just kept saying ‘yes, and?’
“For an artist, that is an incredible gift to be given.”
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.
Where: Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thu.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Also 8 p.m. June 6. Ends June 10. $34.
Contact: (626) 683-6883 or www.bostoncourt.org.