Euripides’s Medea is one of those perennial stories that never lose their bite. A quick summary for the unfamiliar: after stealing the Golden Fleece, settling down, and maintaining a reputable lifestyle for some years with his family, Jason has decided to marry another woman. His wife, Medea, vows revenge. She gives the other woman a poisoned garment that kills both her and her father on contact. Then, as a final act of revenge against her husband, she slaughters their sons before making her escape.
This ancient Greek tragedy got a chic, brainy update with Yara Travieso’s La Medea in a frustratingly short run at BRIC House, as part of PS122’s Coil festival. The production evoked the Public Theater’s 2013 staging of David Byrne’s Here Lies Love, in which the audience was immersed in a nightclub-like environment. In La Medea, the audience stood around the theater, as if on a dance floor, and watched the actors and dancers on several stages while a band played Latin-infused pop (the music and lyrics were by Sam Crawford). The performers were followed on and offstage by a crew of live-switched cameras, which broadcast onto a large screen next to the band. As a result, there were several shows to watch at once — the performers themselves, the live video, and the other audience members, who were at times invited to join in the dance.
A few things make Medea’s story particularly relevant to our moment. She is a woman and a foreigner from a “barbarian” land who shows the patriarchy both middle fingers, and throws in her middle toes for good measure. Jason is a proto-douchebag: he ignores the fact that his glorious accomplishments are largely thanks to the strength and sacrifices of his devoted wife, and when the play begins he has abandoned her for a younger, richer woman — a princess who will help him secure a higher social position. So blinded is he by his patriarchal worldview that he honestly believes his callous maneuvers will help his family.
Medea’s murder of her children is a horrific act, but the play makes her motivation clear: she does it to take revenge on Jason. In the ancient context, sons were so important because they were vehicles for the continuance of a man’s property, while women were property themselves, and subject to transactions between men. To murder sons, therefore, was primarily to hurt the father; children did not “belong” to both parents.
This is a play known to many, as it is widely taught in schools. But it is not a story quite as ubiquitous as, say, Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird. It seemed to us that anyone in the audience who did not already know the play would have been sorely lost. Compounding the potential for confusion was the fact that, although the actors inhabited individual roles in certain scenes, there was fluidity between their characters, and each of the female performers seemed to take on the role of Medea at one time or another. The cast members were not credited as specific characters in the program, so we regret to say that we cannot identify the most outstanding performances.
This show reminded us of Hadestown, a musical version of the Eurydice myth that had a successful run last summer at New York Theatre Workshop, and which we also reviewed for Hyperallergic. There is evidently an appetite at the moment for Greek mythology updated with 21st-century music. In our opinion, Hadestown was superior for being more coherent, if less conceptual. However, many of La Medea’s experiments were successful, most notably the contrast between what happens on screen and on stage. It worked best when the contrast was stark.
On the whole, Travieso’s direction was impressive, especially considering how much was happening at any one time between the acting, dance, music, and film. One of the most beautiful moments was the final scene: Medea took one of the large cameras and held it close to her face, dancing with it while staring into the lens with a look both seductive and defiant. The light shimmered around her face. It was as if Terrence Malick had directed a selfie.
Performances of La Medea took place January 20–22 at BRIC House (647 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn) as part of the Coil 2017 festival, but the material captured on film will be screened as part of the Dance on Camera Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (165 West 65th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on Tuesday, February 7 at 3 pm.