Pseudolus (from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and Medea are the extreme opposites in theatrical masks, but they have a common denominator: When they pop up on Broadway, they unerringly win Tonys for the performers doing the popping (Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and Nathan Lane in the male Roman division; Judith Anderson, Zoe Caldwell and Diana Rigg in the female Greek division).
That formidable fact somehow doesn't frighten you if you're young and Greek and filled with theatrical daring. Director Niketi Kontouri, 40, and her Medea, 39-year-old Karyofyllia Karabeti, are guilty on all three counts, so this month (Sept. 23-27) they lead The National Theatre of Greece in a six-performance siege of New York's City Center with a rippingly original treatment of the Euripides tragedy, full of blood and power and passion and more blood.
"We're all around 40," says Kontouri, conceding there are younger members among the cast of 8 and the chorus of 18. Age, though, is an irrelevancy with such an ageless saga as this (2,500 years and holding, but newly translated into modern Greek by Yorgos Cheimonas).
"I think Medea is my age," declares Karabeti, stepping up to the plate, "neither too old nor too young. She already has two children. Her husband abandons her for a woman who's not necessarily younger because his betrayal is politically motivated. It's not about sex or love."
The social and political underpinnings of the tragedy are what Kontouri hopes set this production apart from others. "It's hard to propose a totally different Medea," she admits. "I wanted to show the conflict between pagan forces, as represented by Medea, and civilized ones, as represented by Jason. She came from the Georgia region of Russia and he from Greece. Both organized a series of slaughters in order to get a kingdom for Jason -- and failed. So when he goes for another woman, she is deeply betrayed -- not only as a woman but as a queen, a goddess. Her ancestors will never accept her back. She's totally alone, and that's why she's transformed from a loving wife and mother into a vengeful, demonic monster." Not only is this Karabeti's toughest role, it is also her favorite. "To play such a part is a dream for an actor," she confesses. "It has so many different emotions, and you have to go deeper and deeper. You need great energy and a ready body and voice to face the difficulties of the part."
Kontouri caught two of the three Tony-winning Medeas -- Rigg in London, Caldwell in New York while studying film and theatre direction at Hunter College -- but Karabeti has really done her homework. "The first Medea I ever saw was Melina Mercouri's in 1976, and I have seen some foreign productions. One Japanese production was played by men. I saw a Russian one and the Pasolini film with Maria Callas. I'm very privileged, and lucky, to follow them."
All this may be Greek to the rest of us, but a translation will be projected simultaneously on a screen above the scenery. Instead of subtitles, Kontouri calls them (quite correctly) "uptitles."