Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St. at Ashland Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 8, $45-$195
As you enter BAM’s elegantly shabby chic Harvey Theater to see Simon Stone’s Medea, there are two young boys already onstage, one stretched out on the floor, on his laptop, the other leaning against a wall, on his smartphone. Bob Cousins’s dramatic cyclorama set is blindingly white, evoking a heavenly way station, making it look as if the unconcerned brothers are floating in a mysterious void. In this riveting adaptation, inspired by Euripides’s 431 BC original and the true story of Dr. Debora Green, who committed horrific crimes against her family in Kansas in 1995, Stone instantly puts us in the kids’ shoes. It’s a thrillingly uncomfortable moment since, of course, this is Medea, and we know it will not end well for the siblings. And getting there is indeed heart-wrenching.
Contemporary stand-ins for Jason and Medea, Lucas (Bobby Cannavale) and Anna (Rose Byrne) are married pharmaceutical scientists facing a crisis. Anna has just been released from a psychiatric facility after having done something bad to Lucas, who is in a relationship with a woman half his age, Clara (Madeline Weinstein), the daughter of their boss, Christopher (Dylan Baker). Anna plans to simply walk back into their old life with their two sons, Edgar (Gabriel Amoroso or Jolly Swag) and (Gus Emeka or Orson Hong Guindo), but Lucas has other ideas. “I know your trust will be hard to regain. What I did to you,” Anna says. “We don’t need to talk about it now,” Lucas replies. Anna: “No, I want to. It was a breach of trust. Most importantly it was trust that we lost.” Lucas: “I’m not —” Anna: “In all those messy months we lost sight of everything we’d promised to be to each other and both of us did that but I overstepped the line —” Lucas: “We should never have stayed together this long.” A determined Anna later adds, “I’m going to win you back.” That does not go so well either.
Medea is ripe for reinterpretation, particularly in a world rife with misogyny and violence. In the past ten years I have seen Aaron Mark’s Another Medea, Limb Hyoung-taek’s Medea and Its Double, and Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, all of which took the central story and reimagined it in unique and compelling ways. Born in Basel and raised in England and Australia, Stone, who moves all around the globe, rarely settling down for an extended period of time, has previously adapted such classics as The Wild Duck, Miss Julie, John Gabriel Borkman, Peer Gynt, Three Sisters, and Hamlet and dazzled New York audiences with his sizzling Yerma at Park Avenue Armory in 2018, infusing his work with personal experience, as he does again with Medea.
The set features one large rectangular white wall that occasionally rises to serve as a projection screen, showing either extreme close-ups of the action, primarily a spellbinding Byrne, her evocative eyes searching for meaning, or live-stream shots by Edgar, who is making an autobiographical film for school. (The video design is by Julia Frey, with bright lighting by Sarah Johnston.) The play was originally performed at live-streaming master and BAM fixture Ivo van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep Amsterdam); the video footage can get to be a bit too much, so it’s a relief when the device goes away in the latter parts of the eighty-minute production, when things really heat up.
The cast is all new for this US premiere, with solid support led by Tony and Emmy nominee Baker (La Bête, Happiness, The Americans) and Weinstein (The Real Thing, Mary Page Marlowe) in addition to Victor Almanzar as bookstore owner Herbert, who offers Anna a job, and Jordan Boatman as Elsbeth, the social worker in charge of her case, keeping a close watch on her treatment of Gus and Edgar. At one point Stone makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the finale of The Sopranos that is a wry riff on what ultimately happens in his take on Medea, as two famous families meet their fate.
Byrne (Bridesmaids, You Can’t Take It with You) plays Anna with a strong-willed vulnerability; she is no mere woman scorned, seeking revenge, but an intelligent wife, mother, and scientist who had the deck stacked against her and refuses to sit back and let everyone walk over her. She has a fiery, passionate chemistry with Cannavale (The Hairy Ape, The Lifespan of a Fact), who also displays a strong-willed vulnerability, allowing the cracks in Lucas’s armor to show through. “She created this instability,” Clara argues to Lucas. “I did too,” he readily admits. This is a Medea that could only be created in today’s #MeToo sociopolitical climate.
The Australian Byrne and New Jersey native Cannavale are real-life partners with two young boys of their own; after going through hell onstage, they head back to their nearby Gowanus apartment to be with their kids. Byrne and Cannavale work together often on television and in film, but this is the first time they are acting opposite each other onstage; later this year they will portray another married couple in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge for the Sydney Theatre Company. At the start of Medea, Anna shows Lucas a painting she made while at the asylum, depicting Noah’s ship in a storm, in which all the animals are drowning. “They thought they were safe and then another storm whipped up and capsized the ark,” Anna tells a confused Lucas. She continues, “You see the dead dove floating on the swell over there? With the olive branch still in its mouth?” It’s a metaphor for Anna’s state of mind, but one can also think of it as a kind of peace offering between Byrne and Cannavale as they return to a normal life following the searing heartbreak their characters experience night after night.