KC Public Theatre’s “The Head of Medusa” Lets a Tragic Figure Tell Her Own Story

A young woman (Medusa) gestures broadly surrounded by women draped in fabric.

Kitty Corum and the cast of “The Head of Medusa” (Micah Thompson)

Of all the figures in Greek mythology, Medusa is quite possibly the most instantly recognizable. Pretty much anyone could name her on sight, but fewer are likely familiar with her story or are even aware that she was not born with that monstrous hair made of snakes but rather cursed and transformed by the goddess Athena. And fewer still will have thought to consider her origins intimately enough to recognize their darker implications. A new musical from the Kansas City Public Theatre presents this classic story through a uniquely empathetic, deeply feminist lens.

Kitty Corum and Emmy Panzica-Piontek’s The Head of Medusa is the flagship production of KC Public’s third annual Theatre Lab Fest running at Charlotte Street Foundation this weekend. Most stories about Medusa focus on her death at the hands of Perseus, beginning long after her transformation from a beautiful, devout young woman to a monster no one can look upon. This play, directed by Producing Artistic Director Nathan Bowman (who also provided the music and lyrics) centers Medusa in her own story, telling her tale through her own perspective.

Medusa (Corum) was a priestess serving in the temple of Athena. As the story goes, Medusa angers the goddess (Erika Crane Ricketts) when she breaks her vow of chastity with the sea god Poseidon (Spencer Thompson). However, more and more modern analyses of this story recognize that this was not a consensual affair, but rape—an act that is hardly uncommon in myths involving encounters between male gods and mortal women.

The Head of Medusa begins just after the assault has taken place. In the hours that follow, Medusa grapples with what she’s experienced, overcome with sorrow as well as fear that her goddess will blame her instead of Poseidon, and possibly even abandon her entirely. As it turns out, these worries are far from unfounded. Meanwhile, her peers, her fellow priestesses, have to figure out how to make sense of Medusa’s claims. They believe her sorrow is genuine, but if they also believe Poseidon has disrespected her vow of chastity and raped her, that contradicts their deepest belief that the gods are infallible, throwing their entire worldview into chaos. It’s a harrowing examination of the dissection, doubt, and victim-blaming so many victims of sexual assault are subjected to. 

While that analytical lens might be distinctly modern, Corum and Panzica-Piontek (who also plays Medusa’s sister, Euryale) take pains to make sure the play itself does not feel that way. The musical resembles a classic Greek tragedy, with a presentational, poetic style. The priestesses (Elaine Clifford, Elena Nguyen, Erdin Schultz-Bever, and Markeyta Young as the High Priestess) serve as the play’s chorus, guiding us through the action and the moral dilemmas within. They often act as one in both their speech and their physicality, which is an especially compelling element of the play, especially late in the show as the women embody Medusa’s dramatic transformation.

As with much of KC Public’s work, The Head of Medusa has a bare-bones but energized rawness to it. If the play feels like a work in progress, that’s because it is, first debuting as part of the company’s Theatre Lab series of new play readings. The costumes are, for the most part, simple gestures at classical draping; the set consists of a single platform and one golden shield featuring that instantly recognizable head of Medusa mounted center stage, a menacingly lone focal point. The music is melancholic and a bit haunting, and feels very much still in development. The focus here is clearly on the script and, perhaps even more so, on the process of bringing the playwrights’ unique voices and passionate ideas to the stage. The play is a conversation starter and the production gives a compelling look at the process of bringing a new work of art to life.

“The Head of Medusa,” a production of Kansas City Public Theatre as part of the 2023 Theatre Lab, runs through May 20 at the Charlotte Street Foundation, 3333 Wyoming St. For more information, visit kcpublictheatre.org.

Vivian Kane

Vivian Kane is a writer living in Kansas City. She covers pop culture and politics for a national audience at The Mary Sue and theatre and film locally, with bylines in The Pitch. She has an MFA in Theatre from CalArts.

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