She enters quietly, controlled—not straining to hold her hysteria from gushing forth, but emotionally spent. Sunglasses hide her cried-out eyes; the studied steadiness of her voice masks the disorientation of her raging grief. This first image of Medea is one of many revelations offered by director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw in their insightful, modern-dress production set on a half-finished suburban patio, running only through Saturday as part of BAM’s 20th-anniversary Next Wave Festival.
In most stagings, Medea starts out ranting: She’s hell-bent on avenging Jason for taking a new wife; she froths like a rabid animal as she vows to murder her children. But as they’ve done in their collaborations on other classics—Electra, Richard II, Hedda Gabler—Warner and Shaw peel away the thick layers of traditional interpretation and grapple anew with the text (using a stunning translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael). They present a frank, fresh look at a character we only thought we knew.
Euripides makes it clear enough that Medea’s decision to kill the children is long in coming and difficult for her to fulfill—yet inevitable, egged on by Jason’s arrogant dismissal of her grievance and by Kreon’s preemptive strike of banishment. Medea argues with herself about the best course of action throughout the play. Seizing on the contradictory impulses and disjointed logic of Medea’s pain-addled mind, Shaw brilliantly illuminates Medea’s process of hatching outrageous ideas, contemplating their effects, justifying them to herself, and testing them out self-consciously before the onstage audience of busybodies, the chorus.
After Kreon pronounces Medea’s exile, for instance, Shaw sits down-center on the lip of the stage, the blood draining from her face, as the chorus offers its empty sympathies. Her expression is blank, stunned, as if the wind has been knocked out of her. She thinks, comes up with a scheme, and her features become enlivened again. She’s back on her feet, indignant. “I have one day to make all three chopped meat: Father, daughter, and the man I hate,” she blurts, then quickly realizes that she’ll have no place of refuge once that deed is done. She reconsiders, only to urge herself forward. “Do it!” she commands herself, striking a fist into her gut. We see the desperation that drives her.
Presenting Medea’s process with such luminous clarity liberates the character—and the play—from the limiting, age-old interpretation of the woman scorned as monstrous barbarian. That view, Warner and Shaw make plain, is to see Medea through Jason’s eyes. He recognizes only her erotic jealousy as the issue. “You killed them for sex,” he spits at play’s end, still not getting it, yet supplying part of the deeper motivation in his next, absurd remark: “What Greek would have done such things?”
Medea’s anguish comes not, of course, just from the romantic betrayal—though the erotic charge between her and Jason (the hunky and perfectly condescending Jonathan Cake) remains palpable here. She simply has no life without him: first, as she explains in one of her self-justifying speeches, because no wife in their milieu has, and second, because she not only left her family and country behind to follow him to Corinth, but killed those she loved to save him. “I am alone,” she laments. “I am despised by my husband, a souvenir from foreign parts.”
When she addresses the chorus upon her entrance, Medea’s first line foreshadows the theme. “Ladies,” she says in greeting, then with just a hint of spite, “Corinthians.”
Like all of Euripides’ choruses, this one can’t think beyond homiletic clichés. Warner makes a bold and fascinating choice by figuring them as housewifely gossips—neighboring women who live for the next issue of the tabloids and try to hide their salacious interest in Medea’s woes behind Tupperware offerings of homemade cakes. The trouble is, the five actors in the chorus strive to individuate themselves with fussy business and pointless props. Each seems determined to build a full-bodied character from her slices of the choral odes. But there’s no basis in the text for such elaborations, so their disparate activities—wiping the upstage sliding glass door with a cloth, for instance—are just so much distraction. (A center-stage pool of water and a variety of strewn-about children’s toys similarly set Shaw up for some needlessly cutesy, or downright mystifying, actions.)
More important, there’s one devastating way in which Warner does not solve (and maybe nobody can) the problem of the chorus for a modern production: Knowing that Medea is about to go off and slay her sons, they do not intervene (though Warner lets one barf onto the edge of the stage). For audiences some 2500 years ago, the chorus’s vow not to reveal Medea’s plan—along with the steeped tradition of the chorus’s external role—would likely have been enough to keep the question of their failure to act from coming up. But once Warner puts the chorus inside the action, there’s no way not to expect them to do something.
Nonetheless, the appalling act is no less disturbing—indeed, all the more so because Shaw has shown it to issue so uncontrollably out of her desperation. Her Medea becomes, through a process we can’t fail to understand and even sympathize with, as shockingly resolute as a suicide bomber. Warner shows the outcome unsparingly, violating the old classical decorum effectively by nearly depicting the murder onstage.
Through the upstage glass door, we see Medea take the boys off. Under a crash of electronic screeches, blood splashes onto the inside of the door, then one of the boys runs terrified into view and Medea chases him down and carries him back into the wings. The noise abates. For the first time in the 90-minute production, the stage goes silent, save for the dim hum of a banal song playing on a radio somewhere. Medea returns with each corpse, and quietly washes the boys’ feet in the pool as Jason weeps.
No chariot comes to sweep her off to Athens, as Euripides supplies. In a more Beckettian vision, she and Jason, the closest of enemies, are left with each other to go on.
The primal passions of the Greek tragedies have made them repeated sources for opera, of course. The Richard Strauss Elektra in the current Metropolitan Opera season, starring Deborah Polaski and Karita Mattila, is a thrilling masterpiece of tragic inexorability, for instance. Postmodern operas, on the other hand, have made an insistent point of being less, well, operatic. In the worst instances—and sad to say, Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei at BAM is one of them—the works are cold and empty. That’s especially disheartening given Glass’s rich subject, a morally complicated genius, and the director (and primary librettist), the wondrously imaginative Mary Zimmerman.
This Galileo tells the astronomer’s biography backward—from his old age, to his recantation, to the publication of his discoveries, to his childhood—but makes no other intervention in the basic narrative. There’s no issue or conflict or idea or obsession that takes on life through this musical telling of his tale: It is the story of Galileo, but not his drama. Zimmerman’s masterful staging and gorgeous, elaborate sets by Daniel Ostling—Palladian archways, marble floor, astrological projections on a giant scrim—and all the arpeggios in the world cannot make up for the lack of action.