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  • Jonathan Kalb

Medea in Your Living Room

Simon Stone’s Medea doesn’t feel much like an adaptation of Euripides. It’s a contemporary play about a woman named Anna—an accomplished medical researcher—who kills herself and her children after her husband betrays her. No character in it is called Medea, nor is the name ever mentioned. The title is a sort of culturati PR-grab. The story is based on a true-crime incident from the 1990s that Stone felt reflected pivotal aspects of Euripides’s story. He told the producer David Lan that he hated the tendency “to imagine Medea as a monster, a witch,” and wanted to show people instead how her story might happen “in their own home[s].”

I had an argument with my wife about this play after seeing it at the BAM Harvey Theater, where Stone has re-staged it with the celebrity husband-wife team Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne. (It was originally done with Dutch actors in 2014 at the Toneelgroep in Amsterdam.) The play has glaring plausibility problems, major circumstances and decisions that just weren’t believable to me on the realistic plane the action asks to be measured by.

Nevertheless, I thought the show, which takes place in a chic white void, had obvious and impressive theatrical power—a slick, efficient, elegant kick like a TV commercial or music video. The whole thing is 80 minutes long. I also thought Byrne’s performance—much of it seen in hyper-closeup on projected video—was exceptional, quirkily nuanced enough to paper over much of the script malarkey.

My wife disagreed, or rather she felt that neither the kick nor the nuance mattered. For her Stone was either utterly clueless about women or so undiscerning that he could justify passing off an exceptionally disturbed one as an adequate portrait of the hugely complicated figure of Medea. She found the play insulting.

Medea is the adaptation problem from hell. A mother killing her own children—a detail Euripides may have added to the myth—is so abhorrent and contrary to human instincts, let along those of mothers, that there aren’t many analogues to the plot as Euripides tells it. It’s understandable that some might want to reimagine the story in contemporary terms, work out how something like it might plausibly occur in our world. But reaching for tabloids is not a promising plan of attack.

Stone reportedly began his process by searching through “schlocky true crime books.” He ultimately found the analogue he wanted in Debora Green, a Kansas oncologist who resented sacrificing her career for her husband and was convicted in 1996 of poisoning him with ricin and killing their children in a house fire. The basic problem is that any case like Green’s is too easily dismissed as exceptional, a freak show that leaves us cold because we can’t really see ourselves in such crazy behavior.

I’ve seen at least half a dozen modern Medea adaptations. The only one that I felt came close to solving this problem was Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, produced last year at the Public Theater. On the surface Mojada is a realistic tale about illegal immigrants living in Queens, but it shifts the plane of plausibility by incorporating religious rituals that serve the purpose of enlargement and broad communal reference that myth does in Euripides. That’s crucial.

In the opening scene Alfaro’s Medea is seen teaching her beloved, sensitive son shamanistic rites to transcend his body. But in the course of the play, the boy is slowly transformed by his Americanized father and his property developer-girlfriend into a consumerist zombie interested only in fashion and video games. Medea believes death is preferable to such a life, and that spiritual conflict makes the story heartbreaking. Far from being a lunatic we can dismiss, she is a cogent, loving mother who sees herself and the boy as metaphysically entrapped, so she sacrifices his mortal body in the sincere belief it will save his soul.

Mojadas don’t grow on trees, alas. Nor do such rarities tend to have two-month, star-powered runs at the BAM Harvey Theater. Maybe it’s time to recognize that this material doesn’t best lend itself, nowadays, to the tropes of majoritarian thinking, or the conventional psychology of ordinary white people.

Photo: Richard Termine

Written and directed by Simon Stone

BAM Harvey Theatre

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