'Medea': Theater Review

Courtesy of Richard Termine
Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale in 'Medea'
Striking theatricality and performances, but adds nothing new to the story.
2/23/2020

Real-life partners Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale star as a divided couple in Simon Stone's modern-day riff on Euripides' classic Greek tragedy.

There's an awful lot of baggage attending the new modern-day riff on the classic Greek tragedy Medea. Written and directed by Simon Stone "after Euripides," as the program puts it, this version retains very little of the original beyond the essential plot element of a scorned woman murdering her children. It's also inspired by the real-life 1995 case of Deborah Green, a doctor who poisoned her husband and set fire to her home, killing her two children. If that isn't enough, this production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music features a local celebrity couple, Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, who bring both star power and considerable sexual heat to the central roles of Anna and Lucas (standing in for the original's Medea and Jason).

The idea, presumably, was to showcase the timelessness of Euripides' themes, much like Stone did in his acclaimed reimagining of Federico Garcia Lorca's Yerma, seen in New York two years ago. But in this case the modern-day setting and frequently pedestrian dialogue give the drama the feel of a Lifetime movie melodrama gussied up with modernistic theatrical techniques. The production certainly impresses, but we're so aware of its machinations we never become fully involved in the characters and their desperate plights.

Performed on a bare stage featuring blinding white massive tri-fold walls (the better to showcase the blood that inevitably flows), the piece unfolds with a clinical, detached feel. It begins with Lucas bringing Anna home from the psychiatric hospital where she has spent months after attempting to poison him with ricin, derived from castor oil seeds. She had no intention of killing him, she claims, but merely wanted to be close to him.

The reunion, needless to say, is strained, filled with portentous small talk. "I've put on weight," Anna laments. "It suits you," Lucas responds, and we know instantly that things will end very badly.

The couple were former co-workers at a pharmaceutical testing facility, where Anna was very much Lucas' superior. Now their positions have been reversed, with Anna banned from the industry and Lucas having moved up in rank. His new, much younger girlfriend Clara (Madeline Weinstein) also happens to be the daughter of the facility's director, Christopher (Dylan Baker). Anna makes clear her intentions when she asks questions about his new relationship. "I just want to know what I'm up against," she explains to Lucas. "I'm going to win you back."

Lucas has no intention of going back, but he's determined to maintain a cordial relationship with his ex for the sake of their two young children (Jolly Swag and Orson Hong at the reviewed performance).

Director Stone ups the intensity of that opening scene by featuring giant video close-ups of the actors (more often of Byrne), revealing the tense emotions on their faces. The device, so often employed by Belgian director Ivo van Hove (the production originated at Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, which he heads), is explained by having the two boys working on a "documentary" as a school project. It certainly enhances the intimacy of the encounter, especially for those audience members unfortunate enough to be sitting in the far reaches of the auditorium. But as is so often the case, it also produces an artificial, distancing effect, as do the heavily amplified voices of the performers. You find yourself staring at the pores of Byrne's face and wondering about her skin regimen.   

Much of what follows proves almost purposefully banal. The clearly troubled Anna interacts with figures like Christopher, when she shows up unannounced at the lab and implores him to let her work there again; Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman), the young social worker assigned to her case, who is in over her head; and Herbert (Victor Almanzar), Anna's boss at the bookstore where she now works, who regales her with an account of an abused woman severing her husband's penis while he was asleep (apparently, Stone saw fit to throw in the Lorena Bobbitt story for good measure).

The violently climactic plot developments are set in motion when Lucas impulsively succumbs to Anna's entreaties to go to bed together one last time, only for the couple to be interrupted by their children, who videotape their parents in a compromised state. When Lucas angrily lashes out at his son for refusing to turn off the camera, things spiral down from there.

One of the production's most visually striking aspects is the use of black ash raining down from the ceiling, eventually accumulating into a large mound and at one point covering Anna's face, as if representing the darkness of her soul. But for all the power of that imagery, the effect also feels calculated, too on-the-nose.

The two leads deliver impressively intense performances; Byrne conveys a whirlwind of emotions, often moving from one to another in a quicksilver fashion that leaves you constantly on edge. Cannavale cannily underplays by comparison, his mild manner suggesting his character's inner weakness and lack of discipline. But their impeccable work becomes undercut by external factors; Byrne has proven herself a fine dramatic actress in the past, but she's appeared in so many big-screen comedies in recent years (most recently the egregious Like a Boss) that humor seems to bleed into her performance in inappropriate places.

Although it's no fault of theirs, the couple's real-life relationship also proves distracting; you become concerned about whether they'll be able to leave their characters' demons behind when they return home to their children after the performance.

There's no doubting the striking theatrical craftsmanship and imaginative daring of this intermittently powerful, iconoclastic take on Euripides' classic. What's questionable is the point of it all.

Venue: Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, New York
Cast: Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Dylan Baker, Victor Almanzar, Gabriel Amoroso, Jordan Boatman, Emeka Guindo, Orson Hong, Jolly Swag, Madeline Weinstein

Director: Simon Stone
Playwright: Simon Stone, after Euripides

Set designer: Bob Cousins
Costume designer: An D'Huys
Music and sound designer: Stefan Gregory
Lighting designer: Sarah Johnston 
Video designer: Julia Frey
Presented by BAM, Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, David Lan