Medea at BAM

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An unlikely spirit of play presided over the Deborah Warner/ Fiona Shaw Medea, which ran for 13 performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater in the first two weeks of October as part of the 20th Next Wave Festival. There were toys scattered about the stage at the beginning of the play, and Medea's children, when they came bounding in from the audience, were outfitted in dress-up gear. (One wore a homemade cloak and miniature spiked helmet, the other one of those paper sailor hats you fashion out of newsprint.) The chorus of women were autograph-hunting celebrity-hounds in search of a thrill?a hunger Medea willingly fed, as generously as she supplied their need for entertainment. She was something of a cut-up, this Medea. Out of earshot of other characters, she tended to mock at rather than rail against them, making faces behind this one's back, gagging at that one's name. She went in for a good deal of clowning, now holding a child's pistol to her head, now drawing a bead on some enemy offstage, and generally overdramatizing her plight in such a droll way as to offset any impression that she might actually be someone given to self-dramatizing. And when it was all over?when Kreon and his daughter and the children were all dead, and Jason sat broken and oblivious, his back to Medea?the lights went down on Medea standing in a shallow fountain smiling a secret smile and wistfully splashing water in Jason's direction, like a vaguely repentant wife ready to patch things up with the long-suffering husband she quarrels with twice a week?who knows why?

The last thing one expects to find in a production of Medea is a lot of horsing around. But none of the seemingly un-tragic elements in Warner's production seemed flippant or light-minded, and all of them served more than one function. They were multitasking?subtly, without our knowing it?with the result that we didn't immediately experience them as part of a directorial idea. The toys littered about the set when the lights came up were there to remind us up front of the existence of the children, just as the trappings of makeshift make-believe they wore served to demythologize them, make them less iconic. The crowd of groupies was there to suggest a realistic contemporary analogy for that most difficult-to-fathom of Attic tragedy's conventions?the idea that the hero or heroine is supposed to mean something almost tangible to the world at large?while Medea's camping served to disarm an audience braced for gravitas and Important Theater. It was only in retrospect, in the face of that haunting closing image, that it came home to one?the degree to which Warner's whole production had been built around the idea of "play," in all its various meanings: play in the sense of romp or innocent game; play in the sense of jest; play in the sense of play-acting?nonserious activity that apes reality; and overall, play in the sense of something?a word or action?intended to have no consequences.

This modern-dress Medea, which features a blunt, rather inelegant translation by Kenneth MacLeish and Frederic Raphael, originated at the Abbey Theater in Dublin in 2000, before moving to London's West End with a largely different cast. It represents the latest collaboration between Warner, whose innovative productions of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy have made her one of the most highly thought-of classical stage directors to emerge in the last 20 years, and Shaw, the great Irish-born actress, whose role as another famously bad mother (Mrs. Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) has raised her profile in American households of late. I missed Warner and Shaw's version of The Waste Land, which played in New York in 1996 (it was performed at the derelict Liberty Theater on 42nd St.), but I've seen both the Hedda Gabler they did for BBC television and a filmed version of the Royal National Theater Richard II in which Warner directed Shaw in the title role. I saw the latter again a few days after seeing Medea (it was broadcast several times last week on the indispensable cable arts channel, Ovation) and was struck by the contrast between Shaw's takes on the two roles. She is at once the most intellectual and spontaneous of actresses, able to convey emotions and thought processes of symphonic complexity with the subtlest lengthening of a facial muscle, or by shifting the focus of her eyes to another place on the horizon?an eloquence that resonates as devastatingly on stage as it does on film.

But Shaw's approach to Richard was to de-narcissize the character. Rejecting the traditional image of Shakespeare's most histrionic and self-dramatizing monarch (that of a man drunk on words and in love with his own ability to poeticize a situation?so much so that he gives up a kingdom), Shaw gave us a soul awakening to the forces of irony, a mind that seemed to become more elegantly inflected with each blow it received. Revisiting the performance so soon after seeing the Euripides was fascinating. Irony of a completely different sort?the self-mocking kind?is a force here, but its partial purpose is to delay our discovery of the central truth about Shaw's Medea: that she is a monster of narcissism.

This is the sort of woman whose seductive charm masks her inability to accord the slightest importance to the plight or viewpoint of anyone else. There is no tragedy, no pain but hers. But the single most astonishing aspect of Warner's production is the directorial premise that nothing Medea says in the course of the play has literal meaning for her. She says she will kill Kreon and the Princess, but she doesn't really think it will happen until it has. She says she will kill her children, but it's a form of language divorced from the idea of consequences. Showing us the playful verbal scenarios Medea builds, and giving us a chance to watch her gradually come to the realization that she has to go through with what she has said she'll do, is the supreme achievement of this production, and it strikes right at the heart of our curiosity about how Greek tragedy was supposed to work.

For the rest, the production savors too much of the kind of acting and design that marred the company's wildly overpraised production of Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa back in the early 90s. Much in it is frankly bewildering. I liked the modern dress?particularly the Filene's Basement quality of some of the Jacqueline Durran's costumes and the image of the children, in a last sinister game of tag with their mother, rushing about in Y-fronts (is there anywhere a more vulnerable sight than little boys in underpants?). But why did the nanny come onstage with a set of kitchen knives? And why did sirens wail now and then? What was the sound of a female vocalist keening a Chieftains-style lament between scenes supposed to achieve? And what in the world was Tom Pye's set supposed to represent? (With its shallow, rectangular fountain, piles of cinderblocks and wall of heavy institutional glass doors, to me it looked like nothing so much as the area of Lincoln Center between Avery Fisher Hall and the Vivian Beaumont.)

But the inexcusable thing about the production was the quantity of bad acting that Shaw had to contend with. With the exception of her Jason (Jonathan Cake), who offered an engaging commentary on the philandering husband who sees himself as perennially put-upon and abused, the performances were of the sort that make you want to cringe and hide your face in shame. There were hacks declaiming, speechmongers enunciating and ghastly, intolerable hams who spent their time onstage telegraphing the fact that they were very, very upset?in other words, the fact that they were acting. Worst of these were the Nurse and certain members of the chorus?in particular a young redhead who pulled focus so energetically whenever Medea was speaking (sobbing loudly and crawling tragically about the stage at the play's climax) that you found yourself gaping more in horror at the amateurish acting than at the fate of Medea's children. And the choric odes were impossible to make out through the cacophony of emotion being conveyed.

Which was a shame. Some of the best moments in the production should have been during those very choric odes, when Medea sat silently processing what had just happened in the scene before. She was gazing off into the middle distance, and we could see every play of emotion on her face. Now and then one of her thoughts seemed to glance visibly off what was being said. How glorious if we'd been able to understand it.

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