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Piece by Piece

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer
(l to r) Michael Miller, Linda White, Valerie Haugen,Kelley Mauldin, and Richard Lyon in the Carbondale Thunder River Theatre Company debut of "Greek Shards-Medea." The play will be running at the Aspen District Theater Oct. 10-12 and 16-18. Paul Conrad photo.
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For their take on “Medea,” the classic Greek legend of the murderous sorceress, Carbondale’s Thunder River Theatre Company is rewriting the play to suit their own purposes. Thunder River, led by artistic director Lon Winston, has combined “Medea” with fragments from various other Greek myths. The company has set the play in such a way as to modernize the messages and make it more accessible to a contemporary audience. Thunder River’s production, which opens tonight, Oct. 10, at the Aspen District Theatre, is even given the name “Greek Shards – Medea,” to signal that their “Medea” is made of bits and pieces – hence, “shards” – of the original material.

In doing so, Winston says the company is truly honoring theater history. He believes Euripides, whose 431 B.C. version of the “Medea” tragedy has survived the ages, would be proud of how Thunder River has approached the legendary material.

“Greek theater was this contest where it was, who was cleverest in telling the story? Who could make it the most relevant?” said Winston, backstage at the Aspen District Theatre, preparing for Thunder River’s upvalley debut. “And that’s what we decided to do: Let’s approach this myth by researching it, finding our own ritualistic way to tell the story, pick the most interesting things from the story to tell it our own way.



“‘Greek Shards’ – that’s bits and pieces of Greek literature, that’s what’s survived over the years. Take the pieces we find interesting and put them back together again. Euripides would have known all these stories, taken them apart and made them into his own story.”

In fact, Euripides himself took great liberties with the story of Medea. Medea – daughter of the king Aëtes, wife of Jason, practitioner of sorcery – is best known for murdering her children to spite Jason, who had left her for another princess, Glauke. But Medea’s infanticide was the creation of Euripides. In the original myth, the children are killed not by their mother, but by a Corinthian mob, angered by Medea’s murdering of Glauke and her father, the king Creon.




For the Thunder River version, Winston and Valerie Haugen, the company’s associate artist, began by reading various translations of Euripides’ play. After exchanging thoughts and lines of dialogue, they came up with a two-page outline. Working from the scant outline, Winston assembled with the five actors – Linda White, Kelly Mauldin, Richard Lyon, Michael Miller and Haugen – for seven weeks of five-nights-a-week improvisation sessions. Through these sessions, the script of “Greek Shards – Medea” was created.

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Winston, whose roots in the Roaring Fork Valley date back to the ’70s, when he was an acting teacher at Colorado Mountain College, aimed high in founding the Thunder River Theatre Company nine years ago. A graduate of the University of Miami Law School, holder of master’s degrees in fine art and cultural anthropology, and a professor in the theater department at Villanova University from 1980-92, he formed Thunder River after being asked by the Carbondale Council of the Arts and Humanities to produce a play. Winston chose David Mamet’s “Oleanna,” a literary two-character drama. Thunder River has since established itself for its equally high-minded presentations: Chekhov’s “The Seagull” and Ibsen’s “The Ghost,” and contemporary works like Marsha Norman’s “‘night, Mother” and Margaret Edson’s “Wit.”

Last year, Thunder River stepped further back into theater history, presenting the first “Greek Shards” production, “Greek Shards – Antigone,” followed by Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” “Greek Shards” was sold out and well-received; the “Macbeth” production was extended at the New Space Theatre on CMC’s Spring Valley campus. The popular success confirmed Winston’s belief that even a small community would support challenging theater if presented right and well.

“I waited to do ‘Greek Shards’ till I knew our audience could trust the work, knew that we did a good job, that they would come out even if they didn’t know the name of the play,” said the 57-year-old. “And that – ‘Greek Shards – Antigone’ – was a turning point for us. It was the first time we did something totally unknown. We had done Chekhov, Ibsen, and done it in our own way.

“We sold it out and people were there because it was something different. We don’t just take a play off the shelf and do it. We do with it. We find metaphors and icons to shed new light on the play.”

Winston finds the tale of “Medea” to be extremely timely.

“Bush said at the anniversary of 9/11: ‘In our grief and our anger, we have found our mission,'” noted Winston. “What that says to me is, we have emotion ruling reason.

“What’s interesting is the theme of ‘Medea’ is that she is a woman scorned. She has done everything in her power to help this man, and he’s marrying someone else. Her reaction is totally rooted in emotion. She kills Jason’s new wife, her father. She kills her children.

“By killing her children, she’s killing the future. And I want to know, how is that different than today? We’re killing our children and children all over the world. And they’re doing the same to us. We have no future if we have no children.”

*****

In their debut before an upvalley audience, Thunder River is diving right in with challenging, unknown material and a unique presentation. For one, there is the “Greek Shards” approach of combining ancient stories, and making it up on the fly. And the production also uses such innovations as having the characters born out of the chorus, evoking theater as an ancient ritual, and using two actors to play Jason, head of the Argonauts and captain of the Golden Fleece. “Because he’s two-faced, he’s duplicitous,” explained Winston.

Then there is the use of the physical space itself. Audiences will have their expectations upended even before the first line is spoken. Instead of using the regular seating of the Aspen District Theatre, the “Greek Shards-Medea” production will have all the seats – just 99 of them, to keep the intimacy and scale Thunder River plays have always had – on the District Theatre’s backstage area. The usual seating area will be used as a backdrop to the action, one which Winston believes will call to mind the theaters of ancient Greece.

“I’m gaining this ghost, the heritage of this kind of theater, that great big amphitheater that originated in Greece,” he said. “I’m using that image, that ghost, that historical precedent as a backdrop to what we’re doing. The audience looks at it through that veil of history, but we also make ‘Greek Shards – Medea’ a play of our times, as opposed to something historical.

“It’s the first time in Aspen and that’s why I wanted to do something different, use the space in a different way. We like to do things so that the audience experiences it in a different way.”

But it remains to be seen if different means good. Winston is confident. But he also knows the story of Euripides, and his experience with changing the “Medea” myth.

“Euripides changed the story to Medea killing her children, even though in the myth it was someone else. He thought the audience would like it better,” said Winston. “In fact, they hated it. He lost the contest. He came in last place.”

Thunder River Theatre Company’ s original adaptation “Greek Shards – Medea” will be performed at the Aspen District Theatre on Friday through Sunday, Oct. 10-12, and Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 16-18. All performances at 7:30 p.m., except the Sunday, Oct. 12, performance, which is at 6 p.m. To purchase tickets call 963-1680, or go to http://www.thunderrivertheatre.com.


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