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--- Medea at BAM ---Euripides has found an exhilarating new interpreter for his classic tale of the dangerous impulses unleashed in a woman scorned which is having an all too brief run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. Debora Warner and Fiona Shaw, the dynamic duo whose previous collaborations include Electra and The Waste Land, have transformed this ancient revenge story into the most modern drama in town.
There isn't a trailing robe or Greek pillar in sight. This Medea is dressed like a suburban housewife (a rather frumpy one at that). Her children's caretaker (Siobhan McCarthy) is more au pair than stately nurse. The Corinthian landscape is evoked by glass, cinderblocks and a shallow pool in which the hapless children can float their toy boats. The handsome hunk of a husband (Jonathan Cake) who ditches her for a younger, more politically advantageous trophy wife wears jeans. The traditional Greek chorus is a multicultural mix of Corinthians with a taste for headline making scandals who watch Medea's reaction to being rejected and threatened with exile with a mix of sympathy and schadenfreude. For them Medea and Jason combine the appeal of well-known people in crisis situations and ordinary people whose extraordinary actions make them newsworthy (think modern Medeas like Susan Smith) .
Greek tragedy traditionalists, like our London critic (see link below) may object to this playing down of the magical properties Euripides gave to his anti-heroine, but I found director Warner's concept and the very accessible translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael bracingly relevant theater. The new text is true to Euripides despite its conversational tone and the omission of the original finale that has Medea carried to safety in her sun god grandfather's chariot. The relevance to contemporary headlines is achieved smoothly rather than forced
But the real magic of this production derives from Fiona Shaw's riveting performance. Shaw has more in common with Stevie in Edward Albee's The Goat or Who Is Sylvia? than the icy, regal Medea of Diana Riggs, or the slithering stylized Medea of Zoe Caldwell. Shaw's Medea, like Stevie, is a happily married woman whose world collapses. She is no demigod but a sexually charged, psychologically complex everywoman whose heinous acts come after much wavering as to which fork in the road to take (killing herself, Jason, her rival, her children?).
While we know the final outcome, we are kept on edge watching Shaw's Medea navigate the many moods leading to the inevitable turn in the road taken: rage ("My husband is the vilest man alive"); mournfulness ("My lovely life is lost"); indecision ("Cruel it is and wicked it is -- but what can I do?"); occasional calm and loving mothering, acerbic humor (Responding to Jason's attempts to rationalize his new marriage with "I just want to thank you for all your foresight." and telling the chorus that he's a "playboy playing philosopher").
Shaw is also a potent non-verbal actress. Her reaction whenever Jason comes within touching distances tells us all we need to know about her sexual enslavement to the man for whom she's already killed once (her brother). Just watch her Modigliani-like face during the messenger's (Derek Hutchison) recitation of the off-stage deaths of Kreon (Struan Rodger) and his daughter. To further draw us into the tension of the inevitable ending, there's the ominous humming of Mel Mercier's soundscape and the constant sprinting of actors up and down the stairs of the Harvey's aisles.
The bloody deed, when finally done, is high drama indeed with one of the chorus members literally turning this into a dance of death Shaw's leading the children to the slaughter is horrifying, especially when she rushes out to capture the one little boy who is trying to escape. Just as powerful is a final less melodramatic moment when Medea and Jason are sitting around that bloodied pool and Shaw breaks one of the boy's toy sailboats. It's as stunning an ending as any god-sent chariot could provide -- and a most promising beginning for BAM's latest Next Wave Festival.
Medea reviewed in London.
Theater Books Make Great Gifts
At This Theater
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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