Friday, February 14, 2020

Medea - Hell Still Hath No Fury...

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Director Simon Stone has staged his new adaptation of Euripides' classic revenge story Medea, now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, on a white background. Bob Cousins’ set being a literal blank canvass as it were. The idea apparently to strip the piece down to its bare essentials, thus providing a penetrating look at the tale itself. Stone previously putting forth a similar premise in his terrific production of Yerma, seen in New York in 2018 at the Park Avenue Armory. However here, despite some terrific performances from cast, and especially the two leads, this Medea ends up somewhat adrift; with what’s actually presented not always ringing true.

Anna (Rose Byrne), a once-respected research scientist in the pharmacological world, has just been released from a treatment center after being sent there for trying to kill her husband, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale). Confident in her certainty that she is now fully recovered, Anna is eager to pick up where she left off before being sent away. She all set to move back in with Lucas and their two children, Edgar (Jolly Swag) and Gus (Orson Hong). She's also extremely anxious to resume her career - despite being barred from doing any work whatsoever in the medical field. A fact she is well aware of and something which her former boss Christopher (Dylan Baker) reminds her.

The more Anna tries to return to her old life, the more devastated she is to realize things have moved on without her. Lucas having since begun a relationship with Christopher's daughter Clara (Madeline Weinstein). One that has developed to the point where she has moved in with him. Anna's reactions as she refuses to accept these new realities show quite clearly how far she is from anything that could be considered a full recovery. Caught in the middle are her two children, who have conflicting loyalties to their parents; as well as to Madeline, who is trying very hard to have her own life with the man she loves.

                    Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in Medea. Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

The story of a woman scorned is one of the oldest tales in history. Stone commenting in the program notes how this tale didn’t originate with Euripides; rather he strongly embellished what already there. Stone now attempts to do the same by adding his own spin to the material. While Stone does succeed in moving the work into the modern era – via the use of cell phones, video cameras and the like - his efforts ultimately cause the core elements of the work to become diluted.

The Euripides tale had Medea left to her own devices by a husband who essentially tossed her aside to marry someone else because it was politically advantageous for him to do so. Medea then enacting a horrible vengeance in return. While the same premise is still in play here, Stone colors the tale by making Anna a woman with definite mental issues. Ones she is unable to deal with. Thus, while clearly nursing a huge amount of anger at her husband, who is certainly no angel, Anna is given something of an out by not being totally responsible for her actions.

Further complicating matters is the fact that Anna is obviously not ready to be released from the place she was confined. A situation which causes one to wonder how she was cleared to return home in the first place. Or why her social worker Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman) would not call her supervisor when she witnesses some of Anna’s subsequent actions. Especially when she admits to having mixed alcohol with her medications, and also not remembering exactly how many of her prescribed pills she has actually taken. This apparent failure of those responsible to see the ticking time bomb Anna has become could be plausible were Stone trying to present an indictment on the country’s healthcare system. But as that does not seem to be part of his equation, the entire premise of the story is severely weakened.

                             Dylan Baker and Rose Byrne in "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

There are also points where the audience gets the opportunity to see video close-ups - via a camera, usually carried by Edgar - of the action unfolding on stage. Including one of Anna’s face when she says how she is now perfectly fine. Her expression clearly showing something different altogether and causing the entire moment to descend into camp as it provokes laughter from those in attendance.

The story does turn more serious as it progresses. Anna’s last message to Lucas particular quite chilling. Even as her final actions show her to be a mother with a deep – if very misguided – concern for her children. It also important to note that almost none of the characters are totally innocent. The entire play a warning about betrayal, loyalty and how one reaps what they have sown. Yet the show’s ending lacks an overall visceral punch, and winds up feeling almost lyrical in its execution. Instead of something that could have been much more emotionally gripping.

Byrne gives an absolutely brilliant performance as Anna. Someone continually on a razor’s edge of sanity as she fights to regain all that she lost in the wake of her mental collapse. Though her continual fixation on getting back to the way things were, instead of learning to accept what they have become, leads to her undoing. As well as that of everyone around her.

                               Rose Bryne and the cast of "Medea". Photo Credit: Richard Termine.

Cannavale does a wonderful job with the role of Lucas. At first, a seeming long-suffering husband, he quickly turns out to be something of schemer. He having ridden Anna’s professional coattails during their time together – the two first met while working at the same facility - and he also apparently taken credit for some of her discoveries. Lucas now has hitched his wagon to Madeline. Thus ensuring, he assumes, a rosy future both in a personal and professional sense. Lucas is also quite wishy-washy when it comes to making any sort of decision – such as explaining to Anna the facts of his new relationship - unless pushed into it by someone else.

Weinstein is fine as Madeline, a woman who only wants to begin a new life with Lucas and his kids. Baker is excellent as Christopher, a true materialistic bastard and someone not above using anything or anyone – including his own daughter - to consolidate his power base and increase his company's bottom line. Swag and Hong are fine as Lucas and Anna’s children.

Medea is a character who never needed a crutch to justify her actions. That Stone does so here with Anna, in perhaps an attempt to make the piece more well-rounded or more palatable to a modern audience, only serves to weaken the character, and the overall tale.

Also in the cast is Victor Almanzar. 

Bobby Cannavale (Lucas), Rose Byrne (Anna), Gabriel Amoroso/Jolly Swag (Edgar), Emeka Guindo/Orson Hong (Gus), Madeline Weinstein (Clara), Dylan Baker (Christopher), Victor Almanzar (Herbert), Jordan Boatman (Elsbeth).


Written by Simon Stone after Euripides
Directed by Simon Stone

Set Design: Bob Cousins
Costume Design: An D'Huys
Music & Sound Design: Stefan Gregory
Lighting Design: Sarah Johnson
Video Design: Julia Frey
Casting: Jim Carnahan, CSA
Costume Associate: Fauve Ryckebusch
Production Stage Manager: David Lurie-Perret

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theatre
651 Fulton StreetBrooklyn
Tickets: 718-636-4100 or
Running Time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Closes: March 8, 2020

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