[nyc] MEDEA (BAM): Euripides should sue

BAM Medea review

(L to R): Bobby Cannavale, Madeline Weinstein, and Rose Byrne in MEDEA. Photo by Richard Termine

British auteur-director Simon Stone has rewritten the ancient Greek tragedy, Medea,  to fit the contours of the contemporary world  No longer is she a homicidal, child-murdering witch, one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world, the brilliant outsider, a barbarian who will not submit to patriarchal laws, but, instead, a big Pharma scientist, head of a lab where her husband, also a doctor, works; he is in quest not of the Golden Fleece as was his original counterpart, Jason, but of a new drug, now “in trials.” 

When Medea (Rose Byrne), here called Anna, discovered her husband, here called Lucas (Bobby Cannavale) was having an affair with the young daughter, Clara (Madeline Weinstein) of the lab’s owner, Christopher (Dylan Baker), she begins to poison her husband, bit by bit. When this is discovered—all this happens before our show opens—she is sent to a psychiatric facility. 

And no wonder, since once she is released into her husband’s legal custody, she is clearly still quite nuts. And so the passionate, archetypal revenge myth of a brilliant woman betrayed by her ambitious husband—a woman scorned— is transformed into a mere tabloid sensation. The Bobbitt penis-slicing story is related to us an evidentiary footnote. The ineffectual social worker (Jordan Boatman) mishandles all the danger signals—anybody could tell this is not a woman to be trusted with her two sons.

Like other celebrity directors, Stone follows the trend of hiring red-carpet celebrities to star and using enormous screens to simultaneously project the action happening onstage; the actors are mic-ed and they are often directed to face the camera rather than the audience. Am I the only person who finds this split focus distracting from the basic fact of live theater? The two boys are making an autobiographical documentary of their lives, and their camera is the counterpart of Stone’s offstage camera.

Visually, the show is stunning: the Harvey Theater at BAM is, in its studied decrepitude, magnificent.  Medea’s set (designed by  Bob Cousins) is a blazingly white container—three walls and a floor—with black ash falling from above as though to signal the start of the inevitable catastrophe.

Euripides’ play has been interpreted and reinterpreted though the centuries (first performed in 431 BCE), but Stone’s production—bolstered by some terrific acting by Byrne and Cannavale—is infuriatingly reductive. His final image of the mother and children sweetly united in death ignores the great truth Euripides gave us at the end: Medea escapes—she flies away in a chariot drawn by winged dragons, and she’s still out there in the world.

[Harvey Theater at BAM Strong, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, NY] January 12-March 8, 2020 (extended); bam.org/medea

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About the author

Toby Zinman

Toby Zinman is a recently retired professor of English at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a Fulbright professor at Tel Aviv University and a visiting professor in China. She publishes widely and lectures internationally on American drama. Her fifth book, Replay: Classic Modern Drama Reimagined, was published by Methuen, and she published the essay, "Visions of Tragedy in Contemporary American Drama," in 2017. Zinman is also the chief theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. She was named by American Theatre magazine as, “one of the 12 most influential critics in America.” Her travel writing has taken her all over the world, from dogsledding in the Yukon to hiking across England.