A marital happily-ever-after has an aftermath in the millennia-old tragedy of Euripedes’s Medea. The story goes like this: After all that his wife has done for him, the husband abandons her for another woman. In an act of shocking revenge, the eponymous wife slaughters their children and his betrothed.
Those who studied the ancient Athens play will know the beats of director Simon Stone’s contemporized take at the Brooklyn BAM Hudson Theatre and feel uneased at the pre-show sight of two young boys (Jolly Swag and Orson Hong on my showing), fixated on their electronics, blissfully unaware of their impending fate by their mother’s hand.
From the moment Anna (Rose Byrne) stares across the shock-white plane at her estranged husband, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale), her expression struggles not to betray discomposure, as captured by the live projection honing in on Byre’s anguished eyes and the fidgeting creases of her forced smiles. We later learn that a year ago Anna secretly poisoned her husband when she uncovered his affair with a younger woman. Anna is hellbent on winning back her husband, who tries to assume accountability for her state as he prepares to marry his twenty-something new betrothed (Madeline Weinstein). But Anna’s rehabilitation proves difficult and she commits drastic measures.
The video projections by Julia Frey flash off-stage action and create a startling intimacy with Anna’s psyche from the get-go. The limbo-stark-white set by Bob Cousins strikes the eye, as if the players wander the visage of Anna’s consciousness, and pops out a contrast to the modern costume design by An d’Huys. Even standing straight, the bagginess of Anna’s clothes convey a woman about to sink anytime. There are ways in which Stone’s mingling of the multimedia and the spatial capture overwhelming anxiety, such as when the young girlfriend absorbs the scene of her future husband’s sexual betrayal — which she will later tolerate and even bless.
The visual boldness gradually snags the attention, especially when splashes of color offer relief from the blank-white in the form of ashes sprinkling down like an endless autumn. From there, Simon transforms the environment into an eerie dramatic playground, as the children scramble and innocuously play in the ashes, and Anna and Bobby reach the peak of an argument and saunter into the core of the vortex.
Bryne remains in control, although her real-life significant other, Cannavale, doesn’t emit maximum sell despite the fictional couple’s convincing marital (former marital) chemistry, which is a letdown. For all of the dodgy nature of the script, Stone’s text effectively suggests the non-malicious male who unintentionally siphons the wellbeing of his female significant other is a threat, leaning onto the historical pattern of male figures who were raised on the pedestal while their wives are swiped into the margins of history despite their involvement in their husbands’ work.
Reading the fictional character Medea, who subverted typical feminine views in ancient Greece, is a contentious task, and more-so with this modernized take — which is said to derive loose inspiration from the real-life case of a researcher who killed her children and poisoned her husband. But through abstracted scenery, Simon distances Medea itself from the close readings to real-life infanticides.
But this blank-canvas approach simultaneously renders Medea as devoid of anything to say about its depiction of fraught womanhood, patriarchal obliviousness, and marital messiness while opening itself to the most unsavory interpretations about women facing aging and fading feminity, an unfortunate opening to fatalistic readings that women in downwards spirals will deliberately drag her beloveds into the abyss with her. Medea falls short of reaching for relevancy, absorbed by its too-remote abstraction and leaning heavily on audience projection to get the idea.
Medea leans into a hypnotizing pretentiousness rather than poetic poignancy. The shards of Medea are more compelling than its whole. Its visual playground and Bryne’s intensity make for an arresting intermissionless 75 minutes, but you don’t walk out with new insights.
Medea is playing at BAM Hudson Theatre until March 8, 2020.