- Editor’s note: Possible minor spoilers for those unfamiliar with the Medusa myth.
- CW: abuse / sexual assault
The gods of ancient Greece have always been decidedly fallible. Although powerful, in the stories that have come down to us from ages past, they exhibit very human failings. This is a truth that can be difficult to reconcile, especially for those of us who honor them in the modern day. Athena was the first goddess to whom I was drawn; since childhood, she was a beacon of wisdom and strength. You could call her my first feminist icon. But the fact is, there are stories about her that present a challenge to me. One such is the tale of Medusa. This story of a woman wronged by Poseidon and punished by Athena is currently being masterfully retold by Chicago’s Otherworld Theatre Company in Medusa Undone.
Raised in an abusive family, Medusa has escaped home and arrives at Athena’s temple, seeking to serve the goddess whom she admires above all others. The play opens with us hearing her beseeching the goddess of justice and protectress of women. Feeling alone in all the world, Medusa aches to find a place where she belongs. Grace Gimpel’s portrayal of Medusa’s sister Stheno is unexpectedly nuanced and bittersweet, providing insight into the complexities of both characters’ experiences with abuse.
Michael Bullaro’s Poseidon, meanwhile, is narcissistic but affable and oh-so-charming. In spite of his flaws, or maybe because of them, it’s hard to not have a soft spot for him—and that’s exactly the point. He is like so many people in our lives, those who wear the guise of “friend” and may even genuinely believe themselves to be one to us, until they don’t get what they want.
Anyone familiar with Medusa’s story as recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses knows that Poseidon desires more than friendship from her. Medusa Undone follows this same premise. As the audience, all we can do is watch as events unfold. We have the benefit of knowledge that Medusa does not. Even a High Priestess gifted with foresight cannot see everything. The play acknowledges that a variety of circumstances can and do limit an oracle’s ability to foresee the future; in their first meeting, Athena warns Medusa that her priestesses must remain virgins because entanglements with men have harmful effects on their abilities to serve.
Ancient and contemporary societies alike put in inordinate degree of emphasis on the concept of virginity, particularly that of women. Medusa Undone powerfully challenges some of the problematic and harmful notions of this concept (e.g., women’s power—and therefore worth—comes from virginity; virginity is a commodity that can be “lost” and only via penetrative sex with men), and in so doing also challenges aspects of Athena’s wisdom.
Medusa’s rejection of Poseidon, we discover, is borne from something more than disinterest in him, and more than her unwavering religious duty to Athena. When we, the audience, discover along with Poseidon, the full reason for Medusa’s rejection of him—despite his Good Guy entreaties of friendship—the violence of his reaction takes on a devastating realness to which many viewers will sadly relate.
There are so many moments like that in Medusa Undone. It’s at once ancient and modern, culturally specific and yet the story of survivors everywhere. There are trigger warnings for good reason—the play does not shy away from the reality of Medusa’s experience—but nothing is included for shock value. As a survivor myself, I was initially hesitant about seeing this production, wondering how the subject matter would be treated. At the play’s most intense and potentially triggering moments, its brilliant, minimalist staging made the difference.
When we hear (but do not see) Medusa crying out for Athena, goddess of Justice, to come to her aid…and know that it is not to come…how can our hearts not break? And when all we hear is silence, how do we not weep for what we know has happened?
The scene that follows is a testament to many of the talents that contribute to the brilliance of Medusa Undone. With unflinching honesty, Mary-Kate Arnold as Medusa, and Christina Jones as Clea, masterfully bring Bella Poynton’s script to life in their depiction of the aftermath of assault. An understanding of human response to trauma, particularly the trauma experienced during sexual violence, is evident. The scene is raw, heartbreaking, powerful, and sets the groundwork for what makes this play so absolutely needed.
Throughout history, most retellings of Medusa’s story omit her origins. Those that include her backstory, even those that follow Ovid’s version of events, rarely grant Medusa a voice. Ovid refuses to see her as a victim. Rather, he depicts her punishment by Athena as just and deserved. Athena is, after all, the goddess of wisdom, and laws, and civilized society, is she not? Who are we mere mortals to question the gods?
This is a Medusa who does question. She has been violated. She expects Athena to enact justice upon Poseidon for his crime against Medusa (and, one might add, therefore his defilement of Athena’s temple), pleading her case to the goddess she serves. Athena not only refuses, her reasoning is heart-wrenching to witness. Jessica Goforth’s performance as Athena here is another standout moment. In her words, we see revealed a goddess who is so much like many of us mortals: fearful, angry, judgmental.
Every line in Medusa Undone has been written and delivered with exact precision. Athena’s final words to Medusa are appalling perfection.
Medusa represents all who find themselves at the mercy of the powerful. Where is justice to be found, when those who make the laws protect those in power and blame the victims? She is the voice of those whose cries too often go unheard, and she is a warning to those who do not listen—even the gods.
Otherworld Theatre bills Medusa Undone as an exploration of “the social problem of rape culture, our tendency to victim blame, and the great injustice suffered by female victims of abuse of all kinds.” It lives up to every one of these claims, expertly. Director Tiffany Keane Schaefer, her cast, and entire team have created something powerful that deserves to be seen by a wide audience. Medusa Undone runs through May 19, 2019 at Otherworld Theatre, 3914 N. Clark Street, Chicago, IL. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. More information, including dates and times, can be found at their website, otherworldtheatre.org/greeks.
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. RAINN created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE, online.rainn.org y rainn.org/es) in partnership with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country and operates the DoD Safe Helpline for the Department of Defense. RAINN also carries out programs to prevent sexual violence, help survivors, and ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice.