From the get-go, the “Medea” on stage at BAM looks less like a modern update of Euripides’ tragedy than a fashion shoot: Bobby Cannavale talks quietly with Rose Byrne against an empty, blindingly white set. Above them, Byrne’s face is projected on a huge screen, the first example of the production’s abundant reliance on in-real-time video projection.
By the end of this stylized play written and directed by Simon Stone, there is some relief from all that whiteness, when black ashes fall onto the pristine stage, forming a stylish mound that is obviously meant to symbolize the dark doings of the plot. But if I indeed felt compelled to shield my eyes, it wasn’t from the horror, but literally from the glare of the set. This “Medea” unfolds competently, the dialogue is often terse but sophisticated, and the performers are all fine. But the cast and the dialogue and even the story must cede much of the spotlight to the avant-garde stagecraft.
Stone has fashioned a play whose particulars glance at Euripides but are far enough removed from the familiar “Medea” that there is no character even named Medea. The idea is to make the story, and its horror, plausible for 21st century audiences. To that end, Simon was reportedly inspired by the true crime of Debora Green, a physician convicted in 1996 of poisoning her husband with ricin and then killing two of her children in a house fire.
When we first see Anna (Byrne), a medical researcher, she has already gone off the deep end, and come back. She has just been released from a mental hospital – where (we learn much later) she was committed because she was poisoning her husband Lucas (Cannavale) with ricin after she discovered he was having an affair with Carla (Madeline Weinstein), the recently graduated daughter of his boss. His boss (Dylan Baker) was also Anna’s boss, which is how Anna and Lucas originally met.
Lucas has come to meet her after her release, and she gives him a gift, a painting she made of Noah’s ark in which all the animals are drowning.
“They thought they were safe and then another storm whipped up and capsized the ark,” she explains.
“That’s not what happened, is it?” Lucas says.
“None of it actually happened.”
“But that’s not the story.”
“It could just as easily have been the story. “
The exchange gets a laugh, a clue to Stone’s approach, and a foreshadowing of what’s to come.
But for all the ominous symbolism, and ominous music, Anna’s subsequent murderous rage comes off as cool rather than heated, inspiring no more pity and terror than if the characters were trapped inside the pages of a glossy magazine.
BAM Strong (Harvey Theater)
Written by Simon Stone after Euripides
Directed by Simon Stone
Set by Bob Cousins, costumes by An d’Huys, music & Sound by Stefan Gregory, lighting by Sarah Johnston, video by Julia Frey
Victor Almanzar (Herbert)
Gabriel Amoroso (Edgar)
Dylan Baker (Christopher)
Jordan Boatman (Elsbeth)
Rose Byrne (Anna)
Bobby Cannavale (Lucas)
Emeka Guindo (Gus)
Orson Hong (Gus alternate)
Jolly Swag (Edgar alternate)
Madeline Weinstein (Clara)
Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $45 – $195
Medea is on stage through March 8, 2020