Liz, David, Richard, and I saw *Medea* at BAM on 2/7/20. It’s a new version of the ancient story, written and directed by Simon Stone. Stone gave it a contemporary setting, which made it more immediate and relatable.
Here’s a brief overview of the story. Picture it - - ancient Greece. Jason, leader of the Argonauts, went on a quest to capture the Golden Fleece. He met Medea, who said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve got magical powers, I could help you with that. But you’d have to marry me and take me away with you.” He agreed to this, she helped him win the Golden Fleece, they went to Corinth, they married, they had two sons. Happily ever after, right?
Fast forward a few years. Jason started an affair with Glauce, the daughter of the king. Medea found out about this, begged Jason to leave Glauce and stay with her, he said no, he was leaving her, taking their sons, and marrying Glauce. Medea’s revenge was in three parts: first, she killed Glauce by sending her a poisoned gown. Second, Glauce’s father, the king, died trying to save her. And third (and this is the part that really sets Medea apart), Medea killed their two sons, knowing that would be the thing that would hurt Jason the most. She and Jason had their gruesome final confrontation and Medea flew off to Athens in a golden chariot, driven by dragons sent by her grandfather Helios, the god of the sun.
The names were changed in the new version but I’ll use the original names to make it easier. Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale played Medea and Jason. They were both extraordinary, powerful, fearless - - it’s always a treat to see an actor you know primarily from the movies and TV, and see them really take the stage. Byrne was the undisputed star of the show, she knocked me out, she gave a performance with an impressive mix of force and delicacy. I’d seen Cannavale in a few plays, he’s a wonderful actor, and this was a great part for him. David made the point that he's often cast as a "strongman," it was interesting to see him playing an intellectual who's really an idiot. To make things even more interesting, Byrne and Cannavale are a couple in real life, and have two sons who are two and four.
One of the things that was most remarkable about the show was that writer/director Simon Stone used a few elements that have become cliché, but used them so well that I wasn’t bothered. First off, I get a little skittish when I hear about a play that’s written and directed by the same person - - Richard and I saw *Act One* at few years ago at Lincoln Center, an adaptation of Moss Hart’s memoir, written and directed by James Lapine. It was dull and indulgent, I had the impression that Lapine read the book when he was in college, always dreamed that he’d turn it into a play, and finally did it. But when he’s both writing and directing, who’s going to tell him that it’s dull and indulgent? Stone had no such problem, he didn’t need anyone telling him when he went wrong - - or if he did, he took their advice!
The show used a three-pronged complement of potentially troublesome technology - - the dreaded amplification, music, and video. The actors all had body mics, which can be annoying, but the sound design was used in such a clever way, it really added to the experience. At the end of the show Jason was on the phone with Medea and the sound designer tweaked the quality of the sound so it sounded like people talking on the phone, even though it was actors speaking live on the stage, that was a cool touch.
I’m annoyed by too much music in a play, but the music was used sparingly and never stole focus. And everyone wants to use video in a play these days - - this annoyed me when it became so ubiquitous a few years ago (“Am I at a play or at a movie?”), but some directors use it with imagination, as just another element in telling the story and amping up the drama. That was definitely the case here, Stone wrote the play so the video was an essential part of the story.
Worst of all, we had the danger of what I call Make a Mess. I’ve seen a lot of plays over the last few years where the director piles a lot of garbage on the stage in an effort to convey the emotional strain, psychic disintegration, blah blah blah. It doesn’t convey those things, it just looks messy. Stone made a mess, but it was exceptionally artistic and NEAT. The stage was a bright white box and near the end of the play, when things really started turning ugly, these black bits started drifting down from above, onto the stage, piling up and making beautiful patterns on the floor. It wasn’t clear what it was at first, but eventually we understood that they were meant to represent ashes. It was hypnotic and disturbing watching those ashes fall to the stage floor, it was an image I won’t soon forget.
I know I spend a lot of time thinking of sequels and prequels, but wouldn’t it be interesting to have a sequel to the story of Medea and Jason, where we see what happened to Jason? He’s the only person left onstage at the end of the play, I wonder how he would go on with his life.