By day, Michael Elyanow works as associate creative director of United Healthcare. By night, he’s a playwright who also teaches screenwriting at Carleton College.
“Both these jobs involve storytelling, and making dry messages wet and exciting,” he said.
After living in the Twin Cities for six years, Elyanow burst into view this year with two shows. In January, Theatre Latté Da premiered his musical “Lullaby.” This weekend his play “The Children,” a riff on Euripides’ tragedy “Medea,” gets its regional premiere at Pillsbury House Theatre under director Noël Raymond, with a strong cast including Kate Guentzel, Kurt Kwan, Jim Lichtscheidl, Tracey Maloney and Michelle O’Neill.
Before a recent rehearsal, Elyanow talked about his inspiration, his craft and the challenge of updating a Greek tragedy into something that is both hopeful and humorous.
Q: What was your impetus to update this 2,000-year-old play?
A: Many years ago, I saw a great, absorbing off-Broadway production of “Medea.” What surprised me about the play, and maybe I simply forgot this detail, was how often Medea walked around the town telling everyone who would listen, “I’m gonna kill my children.” As I was watching Fiona Shaw chew through the scenery, inching closer and closer to killing those kids, I wondered what would happen if someone stood up, grabbed those kids and ran out with them. I started thinking about who stands up for the defenseless. It was one of those productions I really couldn’t get out of my mind.
Q: Were you a new parent when you started writing the piece?
A: My son was probably 2 at that point. [He’s 14 now.] I wanted to explore not just the kids’ escape from Medea’s rage, but what happens to those kids when they grow older. Do they survive the trauma? That play started on an action event and moved into bigger themes and questions around survival.
Q: Aside from an escape valve, did you find other things lacking from Euripides’ original?
A: Compassion for Medea herself. The children in my play struggle with understanding and coming to terms with the reasons why Medea would choose to kill her children. Among the many things that I was exploring was: What does it mean to sympathize with a monster? And, as a survivor of trauma: How do you reconcile with the perpetrator of your trauma?
Q: Is she a monster, or is her behavior monstrous?
A: That’s a good point. She was driven mad by betrayal.
Q: You’ve melded the ancient Greek tale with today. Can you tell us about it?
A: Among other things, this is a time travel story. In my play, the Greek storyteller uses Medea’s sorcery to transport the kids to Athens. She gets the magic wrong and transports them to Athens, Maine, instead. For me, that was an opportunity for fish-out-of-water references. How would a resident of ancient Greece respond to all of the newfangled modern things out there in our world?
Q: Time travel offers up comic relief.
A: My favorite thing as a playwright is to start off light, then go dark and return to the light. The humor comes from the fact that you have a sheriff from Stonington, Maine, on a mission to evacuate everyone from town to go to this gymnasium — they’re in a Category Five hurricane. He’s a modern guy looking at these people from ancient Greece and trying to figure out who they are. He thinks they’re from the Renaissance Fair, which is two towns over.
Q: You use puppets for the children. Why not real actors?
A: Sometimes, as an artist, you walk backwards into the right thing. If you have adult actors playing 10-year-olds, that creates a level of artifice. If you have kids that age, I, as an audience member, would wonder how you could put child actors through that eight times a week. Oddly enough, the things that are most artificial, which are these magnificent puppets by Masa [Masanari Kawahara], become the vessels that are the most human.
Q: The puppets also aid in another trope about storytelling.
A: My whole idea is that people who survive trauma have stories about themselves. Their memories about their trauma morph and change into both memories and stories. Using puppets as a convention lent itself to a many-layered approach. You get a psychological representation of who these children were, and you also get to invest them with all your emotions.
Q: At the end of “Medea,” everybody’s dead.
A: Exactly. You walk out of the theater feeling, “Oh, that was a bummer.” I wanted to start with the bummer and get to a place of hope and joy. What’s different about my story, aside from the fact that it takes place in modern-day Maine with puppets, is really about how love can bring you out of darkness. I was thinking about how some survivors feel like their lives are ruined forever because of that one horrible thing that happened to them. I wanted to write a play about hope even in the face of the most horrible tragedy.