Review: Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale Put Murder and Marriage Center Stage in “Medea”

“Medea” is one of the stories that you know going in what’s going to happen— no matter what, the tossed-aside wife is going to murder her children — but you watch anyway, almost unable to look away. Simon Stone, who wrote and directed a new adaptation currently playing at BAM’s Harvey Theater, has created a painfully uncanny world that translates Euripides to modern day, inspired by a real life Kansan woman who murdered her children. On the surface, the gruesome filicide of “Medea” seems unfathomable, and yet as Stone’s program interview states, it’s actually not that unheard of, even in our modern, supposedly civilized society.

So if, as Stone tells us, mothers are still murdering their children, it maybe makes sense to look for 21st century echoes of Medea. Stone’s goal here is to write what might be considered a feminist apologia for Medea, a psychological exploration of what it takes for a mother to get to the point of murdering her children. The final product may not achieve its feminist goals, but it is nonetheless an undeniably chilling and thought-provoking production.

As proven with his “Yerma,” Stone is one of the major theatrical auteurs of this generation, known for his evocative and experimental stagings of classics. For “Medea” this meant converting the Harvey Theater into an almost intolerably white cyclorama bathed in florescent light (Bob Cousins did the set, Sarah Johnson the lights). The center panel sometimes lifts up and down, revealing a stage identically designed, a white cavern of indeterminate size. This panel also occasionally features projections, live-feed close ups of the actors (video design by Julia Frey).

Although the design is bold and the camera tricks are interesting, they can sometimes come across as gimmicks, as can the slow stream of ashes that fall center stage throughout. Each of these gestures is visually affecting, but it is often unclear what exactly they are doing, what their rules are, or why they are (only) used at specific moments.

This production would not be what it is without the extraordinary chemistry that real life couple Rose Bryne, who plays Anna (our Medea counterpoint), and Bobby Cannavale, who plays Lucas (a post-modern Jason) have onstage. In Stone’s re-imagining, the piece begins with Lucas picking up Anna from a stay in a mental institution, where she was placed after she tried to poison him; during her stay he has moved on, legally was given custody of their two sons, Edgar and Gus (Gabriel Amoroso and Emeka Guindo at the performance I saw), and is living with his new fiancée, Clara (Madeline Weinstein). Despite these facts, Anna is unwilling to accept change, and quickly works her manipulative mind-trick magic to weasel her way back into their lives and even back into Lucas’s bed.

Bryne is giving a performance that only an actor versed in the screen and the stage could pull off; because of the close ups, we get to see her deeply unhinged facial expressions and manic eyes, even while her posture is calm and collected. Thanks to the dual-distance performances, we see both the staged nonchalance Anna puts on for Lucas and the inner crumbling of her psyche. While the projected live stream may not have a clear logic to when it is used, it is a brilliant way to show us multiple versions of Anna, and Bryne pulls off this double performance of stage and screen with unparalleled aplomb.

Like the sometimes genius, sometimes unclear direction, the script seems to have gotten away from Stone at a few moments. He has re-imagined Medea and Lucas as scientists developing new medications, and in one somewhat sloppy scene has Anna screaming that Lucas stole her ideas and only got where he is because of her; this attempt at justifying Anna’s rage comes too little too late to make a difference. In another unsuccessful scene, Lucas’s boss, Christopher, who is also his fiancée’s father (played by Dylan Baker), tells Lucas to buy Clara gifts, take her to St. Barth’s (daddy will pay) and impregnate her. The (uncriticized) toxic masculinity here is painful to watch. Christopher’s role in general seemed unnecessary, as did Anna’s bookstore boss Herbet (Victor Almanzar, only in one short scene) and her social worker Elsbeth (Jordan Boatman).

The play runs 80 minutes, but could probably have been trimmed even more if some of these peripheral characters and wonky scenes were cut. What’s left would just be the central drama between Anna and Lucas, flanked by the inevitable child victims and the usurping fiancée. Despite the inevitable ending, the last ten minutes of the piece is still terrifying. Stone has given Anna a new reason to murder her children: Lucas is moving to China for work and is taking the kids with him; so in her mind, if she can’t have them, neither can he.

In the piece’s final scene, Bryne gives a monologue full of deep pain, narrating her lack of maternal nature and her desire to return to her quiet life with just Lucas; this is done through phone conversations with some clever sound design tricks by Stefan Gregory, whose work throughout is spot-on. Stone lets us hear how motherhood is unnatural for Anna, a narrative infrequently explored on the stage and one that helps unlock the pathology of Medea.

Unsurprisingly, she kills the children, the white walls are sullied (the experimental theatre version of Checkov’s gun), and we end with a looming shot of the crime scene. While this may have all the trappings of a standard “Medea,” Stone has transformed an ancient myth of a mother murdering her children into something that, scary as it may be, works and even makes sense in the modern world. Bryne gives a masterclass performance that, despite some imperfect aspects of Stone’s work, perfectly articulates how not-so-distant Medea’s desperate, clingy, violent, non-maternal actions are; in Bryne’s hands Medea is miraculously not a monster.

While not every part of Stone’s “Medea” is equally effective, Bryne’s performance is strong enough to make you forget any directorial quirks or playwrighting foibles. Because of her chilling performance you’ll leave the theatre in awe of the violent and emotionally stirring spectacle you just witnessed; you will likely be both speechless and compelled to discuss it at length. Hers is a Medea for the ages.

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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