In Greek myth, there’s no shortage of what some now like to call “dangerous women.” Creatures like the Sirens and Medusa are straight-up monstrous, while Clytemnestra, queen of Mycenae, killed her husband Agamemnon with her lover Aegistus when he returned from Troy. Over the course of the centuries, artists have relished in reimagining these figures as sultry and hypersexual femmes fatales.
The case of Medea, however, sets itself apart. In the eponymous tragedy by Euripides, after she helps her husband Jason secure the golden fleece, she is unceremoniously dumped for a local princess named Glauce/Creusa. To avenge herself, she kills both Glauce and her own children, which she had with Jason. It’s hard to romanticize and sexualize a woman committing filicide.
Yet Simon Stone’s adaptation of Euripides’s tragedy, currently playing at BAM, humanizes Medea. Tragedies, whether Greek or Shakespearian, are often updated, and Stone sets his Medea in the 21st century, without making it feel forced or contrived: this time, Medea is named Anna and she works in medical research, as does her soon-to-be-former husband. The action unfolds in the aftermath of Anna’s discharge from what seems like a mental institution. Rose Byrne plays her as an unstable, brilliant, caring, and loving individual, who abides by her own logic and sees her actions — including the light poisoning of her unfaithful husband with castor oil — as acceptable.
And viewers can’t help but empathize with her; when we meet her, she has lost custody of her children, her husband is in a relationship with the 24-year-old daughter of his and Anna’s boss, and her professional license has been revoked. Her husband Lucas, played by Byrne’s real-life partner Bobby Cannavale, at first feels like a calming presence, a contrast to Anna’s jumpy and chaotic disposition. Slowly, he reveals himself as a patronizing, opportunistic, and pathetic man, who, once his domestic life crumbles due to his own infidelity and his wife’s psychiatric breakdown, remains astoundingly unrepentant. The supporting cast, somehow, grounds and rounds out the emotional warfare. Jordan Boatman plays an empathetic social worker tasked with observing a newly discharged Anna’s interactions with her children; Christopher (Dylan Baker) is your typical ruthless executive; the children, who favor binge-watching the Sopranos, offer much-needed comic reprieves, while Madeline Weinstein has the most thankless role as Clara, the 24-year-old catalyst of the whole tragedy. It would be easy to just hate on her, but her character is written in a way that positions her as a pawn in a game of chess, as is her ancient counterpart. Her only fault is her youth and her plainness, yet she gets the “Red Wedding” treatment.
Medea has fascinated playwrights and filmmakers through the centuries. Franz Grillparzer made her into a frail and feminine character who longs for affection, Pier Paolo Pasolini used opera diva Maria Callas to create a high priestess-type of figure who lived in a land reminiscent of what Stravinsky evokes in his Rite of Spring. By contrast, Lars von Trier, adapting Carl Theodor Dreyer’s book, turned Medea into a real swamp witch, setting her domain in a landscapes where swamps and reeds abound.(Traditionally Medea, a daughter of the Sun God, was, aptly, associated with fire.)
While creating a pagan wonderland really helped set Medea apart from Jason and the Greeks, Stone strips his set completely bare, with just an overwhelming white light and a screen placed above the stage that zooms in on the characters’ faces. In his Medea, the conflict is not cultural (as it was, perhaps, in the source material, where she was a Barbarian) but psychological. The burden is diligently carried by the actors, who delivered a performance that left me on the edge of my seat for its entire 90-minute run, packing in so much drama that it makes the fight scene in Marriage Story seem like a playground tiff.
Medea (2020), directed by Simone Stone and starring Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, continues through March 8 at BAM (BAM Strong, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene, Brooklyn).