Initially, comparing Auxiliary Dog’s Hillary: A Modern Greek Tragedy With a (Somewhat) Happy Ending to The Vortex’s Medea seems unfair. Not because one is markedly better than the other—which would make the entire comparison seem like a slam against the lesser play—but because they are temperamentally quite different. The creation of playwright Wendy Weiner, Hillary tells the life story of Sen. Clinton as an ancient Greek tragedy; the presence of ugly, early-’90s polyester suit jackets alongside goddess costumes, not to mention the escapades of a ditzy Aphrodite and a philandering Bill, lend the play a comedic tone. Whereas Medea, the millennia-old work of Euripides (translated more recently by Philip Vellacott), is a quintessential Greek tragedy, chronicling the horrific climax in the long saga of Medea and her husband, Jason of Argonauts fame.
But on second thought, the plays share certain and undoubted parallels: A seemingly wretched female protagonist, a colossal asshole of a husband, children assaulted by their parents’ wrongdoings, unhelpful and often inflammatory spectators, and interventionist (and always detrimentally influential) gods. The most significant similarity is found in the circumstances of the main characters of Hillary and Medea—women who make irrevocable sacrifices to survive in a man’s world and ultimately find themselves at catastrophic breaking points. Hillary is eventually liberated of her feminine vulnerability, allowing her to put Bill’s transgressions behind her and ascend to political power of her very own. But Medea exacts violent revenge against those who slighted and abused her, wedding herself to eternal madness, misery and notoriety.
Fortunately for both productions, which rest upon their lead characters’ near-omnipresence on stage, the protagonists are fantastically cast. Clara Boling makes Hillary vibrant and likable, portraying her as awkwardly emotional and intellectually conflicted. The performance is animated, quirky and endearing. Angela Littleton is captivating as Medea and convincing in her anguish; though Medea’s actions are repugnantly deranged, Littleton manages to capture your empathy and invest you in the character. You really want to, but you just can’t hate Medea; Littleton won’t let you.
The plays share certain and undoubted parallels: A seemingly wretched female protagonist, a colossal asshole of a husband, children assaulted by their parents’ wrongdoings, unhelpful and often inflammatory spectators, and interventionist (and always detrimentally influential) gods.
Smart casting choices weren’t limited to the female leads. Aux Dog director Eli Browning found a flirtatious Aphrodite in Joy Van Meter, a powerfully majestic Athena in Rebecca Williams and a charismatic Bill in Aaron Worley. At The Vortex, director Shepard Sobel has put together a fabulous 12-actor troupe. Sobel, who moved here last summer from New York (where he was artistic director of The Pearl Theatre Company for 25 years), makes his Albuquerque directorial debut with Medea. While the chorus of Corinthian Women, played by Stephanie Grilo, Teresa A. Longo and Antonya Molleur, complement one another in a way that makes the whole trio shine, I’m a sucker for adorable little kids. Medea’s sons didn’t have any on-stage lines, and their off-stage remarks were limited to “Aaahhh! Help us!”, but Devan Johnson and Stephen Miller’s high-pitched screeches and mischievous expressions pretty much stole the show.
Though Hillary’s set is relatively minimal, the craftsmanship and attention to detail are noteworthy. Five enormous corniced columns define the stage. Upon inspection, it becomes clear that each rib is a wood splice that was individually and painstakingly nailed onto each column. Altars to Athena and Aphrodite anchor the stage wings and double as stairways to the goddess’ elevated platforms; on the night I attended, these altars were beautifully bare (but that was a preview night, somewhat like a dress rehearsal, and I can’t be sure they’ve remained that way). The Medea set is even more minimal, comprised of just a bench; the circular stage created by a surrounding ring of seating banks. The simplicity is commendable, but I was saddened to see they didn’t get the Alibi’s previous memos decrying sponge paint, and I wished the black box had been left black. The actors are more than strong enough to stand on their own, which means that the whirlpool-like, multi-toned-blue design on the floor just proves distracting.
Devan Johnson and Stephen Miller’s high-pitched screeches and mischievous expressions pretty much stole the show.
Altogether, and sponge paint aside, Hillary and Medea are surprisingly good. I’m always a little bit skeptical of Greek tragedies, whether modern adaptations or true translations; the stories are so complex and the narrative demands so great, they often just end up feeling confusing and unsatisfying. But our Albuquerque theaters are doing us proud; Aux Dog and The Vortex present these very challenging plays with clarity and honesty, and the results are genuinely compelling. So plan for a two-day double feature this weekend—Hillary on Friday and Medea on Saturday (or some other variation)—and prepare to be impressed by our local dramatic talents.