Euripides’ tragedy Medea seems to fascinate contemporary playwrights: this season alone we have had Mojada by Luis Alfaro, set in Corona, Queens, and Love, Medea by Peter Gray which makes her an ordinary woman. Now Simon Stone who brought his acclaimed updated version of Lorca’s Yerma to the Park Avenue Armory in 2018 has attempted the same thing for Medea. His production previously seen in Amsterdam and Berlin with a different cast led by Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, a real life couple, makes its American debut at the Harvey Theater at BAM Strong. Although the new play and story are completely accessible, it is engrossing for its cleverness rather than its emotional content as it is all performed at the same level.
All of the names have been changed in Stone’s version and all the events updated to contemporary equivalents, so much so that if the play had not been called Medea it might take some theatergoers a while to recognize the Greek myth. Anna (Medea) has been incarcerated in an institution for a year after attempting to poison her husband Lucas (Jason) when she discovered that he was having an affair with Clara (Glauce), the daughter of their boss Chris (Creon), head of the pharmaceutical lab where they have both worked. The play begins with Lucas coming to take Anna home but he hasn’t told her that he has been living with Clara and plans to marry her as soon as Anna signs their divorce agreement. Their sons, Edgar and Gus, are typical teenagers, a little confused by the arrangements as to whether their parents are getting back together.
Anna, formerly head of the department where Lucas works and his mentor, discovers from Chris that she is barred from the premises and he reminds her that her license has been revoked. She pretends not to understand, even though she has been assigned to work in a bookshop as part of her outpatient therapy. Clara is furious with Lucas for not telling Anna the truth about their relationship which is no secret to the boys. Anna blackmails Lucas into spending the night before she will sign the divorce papers. However, she goes ballistic when she discovers that he is leaving for China to head the firm’s new office and taking their sons over whom he has sole custody. The tragedy that follows has been updated to also include Anna’s work as a chemist and her own death.
The audience is confronted with Bob Cousins’ all-white set which uses no scenery but relies on a few props (a bottle of wine, a video camera, an iPad, a smart phone) with gleaming lighting by Sarah Johnston which is so bright it almost reverberates off the walls of the set. An D’Huys’ colorful contemporary costumes add the only color: Anna/Medea in a green blouse and faded blue jeans, Lucas/Jason in a yellow suit and black knit shirt, Clara/Glauce in an ivory-pink colored blouse and orange skirt, Chris/Creon in a blue suit and yellow tie, and Elsbeth, the social worker, in a flaming red dress. Above the stage is a huge screen on which various scenes are projected live in Julia Frey’s design and often in extreme close-up so that one has the feeling of both seeing a play and watching a film, a distraction that is not entirely offset by the advantages. The scenes segue one into another, often with two going on simultaneously.
The play is almost entirely Byrne’s as Anna/Medea. Although Stone does not allow her much in the way of fireworks, she dominates the play in the way of the great stage divas in the past, portraying a wide range of emotions. As Lucas, her husband who has abandoned her, Cannavale is surprisingly low-key in a role that is almost entirely reaction. As his girlfriend Clara, Madeline Weinstein is rather two-dimensional showing little technique or range. Dylan Baker as her father Chris and the boss of both Lucas currently and Anna previously is asked to do little but lecture both of them. Jordan Boatman as Elsbeth, the social worker, and Victor Almanzar as Herbert, the bookstore owner and Anna’s new boss, are wasted as plot devices. Seen at the performance under review, Jolly Swag and Orson Hong (alternating with Gabriel Amoroso and Emeka Guindo) as Anna and Lucas’ children are very convincing as preteens with minds of their own and a great many questions.
While Simon Stone’s adaptation is engrossing for its surprising updates, it never captures the emotions, seeming more like a gimmick that a reworking of the Greek tragedy. With most of the actors underplaying their roles, the emotional temperature never really heats up even when the audience is confronted with various horrors. The use of the video screen and the all-white set somewhat distances the audience from the events on stage which undercuts the tragedy unfolding. Don’t blame Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, who have given much more impassioned performances elsewhere, as they seem to be pawns of Stone’s concept.
Medea (extended through March 8, 2020)
BAM, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, and David Lan
Harvey Theater at BAM Strong, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.bam.org
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission