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Reviewed by:
  • Medea
  • Cen Liu (bio)
MEDEA
BAM Harvey Theater, Brooklyn, NY

Just prior to the theatre lockdown in March 2020, I attended Simon Stone’s Medea at the BAM Harvey Theater in Brooklyn. Enveloped by a white canvas, the stage stood in striking contrast to the proscenium surrounding it, with its blemished mosaic and mottled embellishments, famously renovated under the leadership of director Peter Brook for his epic staging of The Mahabharata in 1987, recalling the splendors of a bygone era. It was my first time at the theatre, and for me, the decaying interior of the Harvey bled into the psychological landscape of Simon Stone’s Medea—the madness that feeds on the residue of what has already been ruined before the tragedy begins. Like Stone’s other takes on classical texts, Medea is a decidedly contemporary domestic tragedy. Though he underscores this [End Page 44] interest in the recurrence of the themes found in ancient myths—what he calls “cosmic karma” in the production’s program notes—the temporality of Medea is something else. The play dwells on the moment of suspense, cracking open the space for the reconstitution of the meaning of an act that threatens the social rhetoric of family and motherhood.

The white canvas transformed the stage into a flat and depthless surface, a sheer void beset with the fruits of vertigo. Stone continues his investigation into the female psyche—a fraught mixture of jealousy, contempt, rage, regret, and love. Stone’s Medea may unsettle the audience familiar with the ancient drama: his version blends Greek tragedy with the real-life case study of Deborah Green, an American physician who was charged with poisoning her husband and setting fire to their family house, causing the death of two of her three children, but in a more general sense, it is an imaginative exploration of the potentials of theatre in setting off the emotional implosion of its characters. The sensation that the staging creates for the audience mirrors the way that Anna (Stone’s renaming of Medea, played by Rose Byrne) experiences the world around her. We meet Anna after she is brought back from a mental hospital to see her ex-husband and her children. She oscillates between the past and the present, reconfiguring the memories of her attempted murder to assimilate herself into the life of her family. Both worlds are alien to her—they exist only in her imagination. Stone’s version of Medea is not so much about revenge as it is the “dark moments of feverish imagination.” He shows those moments of mental anguish through the close shots of Byrne’s face, when Anna is gripped by the dark shadows of what she has been and could have been: a passionate lover, an esteemed scientist, and a devout parent.

The visual choreography of the blank stage has many backstories to tell. During the performance, embers fall from the ceiling, instilling motion into the otherwise blank space, and ironically sketching out the tangible shape of the deterioration of the family situation. For a short while, the dark circle formed by the ashes turns into the playground for Anna’s children, but it soon becomes their altar of sacrifice. The visual coherence of the production counterpoints the fragmented narrative: we gather bits and pieces about what has happened through Anna’s conversations with others: her ex-husband Lucas, the bookshop owner Herbert, and the social worker Elsbeth. She figures out a scientific puzzle that rewarded Lucas with his career breakthrough, only to realize that he turned his back on her for the daughter of his boss. The audience cannot help but wonder who the victims are, or whom Anna falls victim to.

Even after the pandemic, the white stage sticks in my mind, as does Anna’s despair. For me, the stark blank stage space has become symbolic of the theatre [End Page 45] over the past year as it was stripped down to a tabula rasa: theatre finds itself detached from the physical space that brought the ancient art form into being and pressed for re-envisioning in a virtual world by theatre practitioners. While new media and digital technology have...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 44-46
Launched on MUSE
2021-09-12
Open Access
No
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