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A 'Medea' for the ages

Actress Fiona Shaw brings modern power to the play at a time when the Greek tragedies appear to be increasingly relevant.

December 17, 2002|Charles McNulty | Special to The Times

NEW YORK — For an actress with dreams of a Tony award, a tragedy from 431 BC might just provide the winning role she's been looking for.

"Medea," Euripides' proto-feminist potboiler about a woman who murders her children to exact revenge on her faithless husband, has landed theater's top acting honor for three actresses: Judith Anderson (1948), Zoe Caldwell (1982) and Diana Rigg (1994). And if early indications hold true, a fourth name may soon be added.

Reprising her internationally acclaimed portrayal of Medea on Broadway, Irish actress Fiona Shaw has gone from success to success playing the disturbing heroine of Euripides' masterpiece. Curiously, her performance comes during a fall season when numerous other Greek plays have appeared on New York stages, including Sophocles' "Antigone" and a trio of rarely revived works by Euripides.

The classics, if you'll pardon the paradox, have apparently come roaring back into vogue.

Directed by Shaw's longtime collaborator, Deborah Warner, the Abbey Theatre's "Medea" made its New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October after receiving glowing notices in Dublin and London. The plan was for a U.S. tour that included Boston, Washington, Ann Arbor, Mich., and Berkeley, followed by a two-week engagement at the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris.

But after the raves were confirmed by the notoriously hard-boiled New York drama critics, the producers decided to reschedule the Paris dates in favor of a limited New York run of 84 performances at the Brooks Atkinson Theater.

Calling the play "the most essential ticket of this theater season," Ben Brantley of the New York Times lavishly praised Shaw and Warner for creating "one of the most human Medeas ever." The sentiment was shared by Charles Isherwood of Variety, who wrote, "Fiona Shaw's towering performance in the title role makes it clear that Medea is a contemporary human being, too, a painfully real if rarely reasonable woman."

From the 21st century costumes and manners to Kenneth McLeish's idiomatically relaxed translation, the production narrows the gap between the ancient world and the present. Even the setting is super-modern, a glass-enclosed home with a wading pool that could pass for a wing of a Beverly Hills health club.

Risky investment

"It's extraordinarily accessible to today's audience and to younger people in general," says producer Roger Berlind, who was drawn into the admittedly risky investment by the fresh energy of the staging and cast.

Dressed in a figure-hugging summer dress, light cardigan and dark sunglasses, Shaw's Medea is anything but a relic from the annals of Greek mythology. A foreigner from the East eyed suspiciously by her Greek neighbors, she treats her public exchanges -- be they with political dignitaries, her shameless husband, Jason, or a chorus of Corinthian housewives -- as though they were carefully calibrated press conferences.

If Jason -- played by the gleaming Jonathan Cake as a self-absorbed GQ cover boy -- thinks he can dump her into a life of exile after she's committed foul crimes (including butchering her brother) to make his reputation, well, he's got another think coming. Can he really believe she's going to passively accept his opportunistic marriage to the Princess of Corinth? Not for nothing is Medea an expert in poisons.

The crisp characterizations of this production are in keeping with the way the playwright himself re-imagined his culture's most famous myths. Euripides' down-and-dirty approach, more realistic than that of Aeschylus or Sophocles, is perhaps what makes his work so peculiarly akin to our modern sensibility.

But what gives his plays their uncanny immediacy is the way they combine surprising familiarity with a timeless honesty that has the effect of a cold-water splash in the face.

With its long speeches powerfully articulating the tribulations of womanhood, "Medea" has been often heralded as a pre-feminist revenge play. Warner and Shaw's demythologizing treatment focuses attention on the ceaseless battle between men and women, invoking at times the brawling spouses of August Strindberg and Edward Albee. To drive home the point that there's no easy escape from the circuit of marital suffering, the production denies Medea her magic chariot at the end.

"As there are no stage directions in Greek drama, there's no reason to take literally the chariot at the end," Warner says in defense of her nontraditional interpretation. "But more important, it would be unseemly to have Medea fleeing the bloody scene triumphant."

Certainly, the desolate, everybody-loses ending underscores the way dehumanizing treatment can provoke dehumanizing acts of violence in turn, a quintessential Euripidean theme all too evident in our daily headlines of suicide bombings and military reprisals.

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