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Superb British Cast Of `Medea' Brings Tragedy to Vivid Life

Show sets the standard for literate, engaging theater

MEDEA Play by Euripides. New translation by Alistair Eliot. Starring Diana Rigg. At the Longacre Theatre.

THE new production of Euripides's ``Medea,'' currently in a limited engagement on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre, is clear, beautifully acted, visually arresting, and true to the text. Naturally, it could only have started in England.

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Diana Rigg stars in the title role, and although she is well known as a classical actress in England, she is best known here for her television stint as Emma Peel in 1960s series, ``The Avengers.'' Rigg also hosts ``Mystery'' on PBS. This is her first Broadway appearance since 1975.

Jonathan Kent's production is, for the most part, simple and unadorned. It is actually rather subdued and workmanlike, so much so that for a while one is left wondering where the passion is and when the sparks are going to fly. By the end, when Medea has committed her murderous deed, that situation has been rectified.

Medea has been left by her husband, Jason (played by Tim Oliver Woodward), who has taken up with the daughter of the ruler Creon (John Turner). This unhinges her to the point where she decides to exact her revenge upon her innocent children. It is a situation created by a playwright nearly 2,500 years ago that is still relevant, and still shockingly viable, even today.

Alistair Elliot's new translation is straightforward, achieving an easy naturalism instead of the usual highflying poetry. If at times it is too unaffected (Medea at one point urges Jason, ``In the age-old phrase, let's try to be friends''), it also renders the material easily accessible.

The simple production features high walls made of rusted-looking metal, and every time one of the characters bangs his fist against the wall the amplified sound has the jarring quality of a cold wind chilling your bones. Those metal panels have a significant role toward the end of the play, in a remarkable coup de thtre in which the results of Medea's violent act are revealed to us. Indeed, the entire final part of the play has been staged with a brilliant ferocity that is all the more powerful for the quiet buildup that has preceded it.

The production is far from perfect. The chorus of Women of Corinth is not entirely effective, occasionally breaking into singing and dancing that mostly resembles a Vegas lounge act.

The costumes are schematically designed with everyone in dark colors except the children, who wear innocent white, and Medea, who wears bright red (except at the climax, when she too wears white, the better to showcase the aftereffects of her carnage).

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Tim Oliver Woodward, using a working-class accent, is particularly effective as Jason, and the entire cast is nothing less than superb.

Rigg has garnered considerable acclaim for her performance, and it is justified. She is powerful without being histrionic, showing us the depth of the character's madness while still making her credibly human. Rigg is a stunning-looking woman, and she is showcased here to full advantage. The final image we see of her, silhouetted against a blue sky filled with swirling, ominous clouds, is unforgettable.

In a time when classic texts are regularly abused with shoddy acting and ill-conceived concepts, this ``Medea,'' subtle and powerful, reminds us that great theater still exists.

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