February 1, 2020

The Madness of a Post-Modern "Medea"

Just like Shakespeare, the great Greek playwrights staged their plays with all-male actors. But unlike the Bard, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides centered many of their plays around great female characters: Antigone, Clytemnestra, Electra, Medea and all those Trojan Women.

Scores of modern playwrights have been inspired by those complex heroines, especially by Medea, the wronged wife who wreaks the ultimate act of revenge. Adaptations of her story have included Maxwell Anderson’s three-act drama The Wingless Victory, Neil LaBute’s one-act Medea Redux, Michael John LaChiusa’s musical Marie Christine and Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, the affecting resetting of the tale as a Mexican immigrant’s story that ran last year at The Public Theater. Now joining those ranks is Australian director Simon Stone’s 80-minute update which opened Thursday night at BAM.

Stone’s Medea features the real-life couple of Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale (click here to read more about the couple) and their fame as movie and TV stars has audiences packing BAM’s Harvey Theater at top dollar prices. But the director shines the brightest spotlight on himself.

This production is filled with look-at-me gimmicks, as though Stone had been given an expiring gift card at some shop for post-modern theatrical devices. Everything is showily on-trend. His stage is bare and white and lit to a cornea-scalding brightness. His cast is dressed in casual chic clothes. He has giant video screens display close-ups of the actors’ faces, recorded while they’re performing onstage.

Under other circumstances, those things might not have bothered me. I like a bit of showy theatricality. And I enjoyed Stone's much praised  production of Yerma, a modern reworking of the Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca play of the same name that played at the Park Avenue Armory a couple of years ago and that was performed in a Lucite box that dared the audience to figure out how the actors got into and out of it.

But that box made sense because it provided a visual metaphor for how trapped Yerma’s childless woman and her husband were by her desperation to be a mother. For Medea, Stone (click here to read more about him) seems to be tossing in things just because he can. In the process, the story, which he wrote as well as directed, gets lost.

In this contemporary makeover of Medea, the main character isn’t the outsider who gives up everything she knows and travels to a foreign land for the man she loves only to be abandoned by him. Instead, she’s a brilliant medical researcher named Anna, whose spouse has simply cheated on her.

By the time the play opens, Anna, upset that her husband has been sleeping with a much younger and richer woman, has already tried to poison him with ricin (Stone says he also drew from the 1995 true crime case of Kansa City doctor Debora Green about whom you can read more by clicking hereand she has spent some time in a psychiatric hospital.

Nevertheless, Anna's husband, here named Lucas instead of Jason, welcomes her home and allows her to spend unsupervised time with their two young sons. No one else—Anna’s therapist, her old boss, her new boss, Lucas’ girlfriend—seems to see the danger in that either.

Did none of them pay any attention to the mythology sessions in seventh grade?  Why, instead of allowing his heroine to be a truly tragic avenger or a strong woman who just dumps the guy, has Stone turned her into a hipster harpy?

And because he’s also traded in the poetic language of Euripides’ original for the colloquialisms of a “Law & Order’ episode and given up the larger-than-life passion common to all myths in exchange for the coolness of post-modernism, there’s little left for the actors or for the audience to do but start counting down the minutes to the slaughter.

That horrific denouement is enacted with some elegant stage business. It creates ironically pretty images that I admired but that failed to stir anything more in me.

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