October 4, 2002, Friday
MOVIES, PERFORMING ARTS/WEEKEND DESK
NEXT WAVE REVIEW; A 'Medea' Fit for the World of Today
By BEN BRANTLEY
The word has gone out in Corinth that there's a celebrity in pain in the vicinity. And when the groupies who sniff for blood wounds among the incredibly famous arrive at her house, Medea doesn't disappoint.
There she is, as embodied with a harrowing lack of vanity by the brilliant Fiona Shaw, her recognizable features smudged by unhappiness, her eyes hidden by the formal shield of dark glasses, her mismatched wardrobe a thrown-on hash of running shoes, a cardigan and a little print dress. Why, she might have stepped from those pages of The National Enquirer devoted to stars foolish enough to leave home without makeup. The question is: Will she talk to us? Will she let us in on her truly sensational problems?
You bet she will. How satisfying, after all, can revenge be unless you have an audience to reflect it, to magnify it, to turn it into legend? Without their urging, how will you know who you really are?
In the thrilling Abbey Theater production of Euripides' ''Medea,'' which runs at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Oct. 12, Greek tragedy's most spectacularly vengeful woman has rematerialized in the dawning years of the 21st century. And it is, to tell the truth, a little frightening to see how comfortably this volcanically uncomfortable woman fits into the world of today.
What Ms. Shaw and the director, Deborah Warner, who collaborated so memorably on their staging of T. S. Eliot's ''Waste Land,'' have achieved here seems so obvious, when you think about it, that you're amazed it hasn't been done before. For this ''Medea'' homes in on the parallels between the very form of Greek tragedy -- with its dialogue between uncommon heroes and heroines and the common folk of the chorus -- and an age in which private breakdowns, breakups and humiliations have become public rituals.
Of course if this were the only point of Ms. Warner's ''Medea,'' it wouldn't have turned out to be the most essential ticket of this theater season. This isn't one of those stagings in which a clever concept reduces characters to glossy illustrations.
The miracle of this ''Medea'' is how completely it integrates its ideas of a latter-day culture of celebrity into a classic text, freshly translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, without ever seeming to warp the spirit of the original. The anxious perfume that saturates this production is a compound of the passion, terror and existential ambivalence that have plagued humans for as long as they have been able to think.
Ms. Shaw's Medea has little in common with the usual majestically angry sorceress who is guided by one idée fixe: to avenge herself on her husband, Jason, for whom she betrayed her homeland and who has now left her for the young princess of Corinth. There is scant evidence of the commanding icy intellect so elegantly incarnated by Diana Rigg in Jonathan Kent's production of a proto-feminist ''Medea'' on Broadway in 1994.
It's not that you doubt the intelligence of Ms. Shaw's Medea. But her lacerating misfortunes have broken the circuits of that intelligence, and her responses are a toxic jumble. She seems to wear her nerves outside her skin. Numbness and excruciating pain, shrill anger and mordant, bizarre humor flit across her raw features in disjunctive parade.
Set in a half-finished courtyard littered with children's toys and cinder blocks (the designer is Tom Pye), suggesting a life interrupted, the entire production seems to occur in that heightened, instinct-addling realm that occurs during times of emergency. The evening begins in a state of breathlessness that never really lets up. And as upsetting as much of it is, the show radiates such high theatrical energy and insight that you can't help grinning through most of it.
The first image is of Medea's Nurse (Siobhan McCarthy), represented here as a student au pair type, rushing onto the stage with a handful of knives. She is also, it turns out, carrying bottles of pills. And she proceeds to hide these commonplace household objects, which in this context have suddenly turned threatening.
This interpolated scene is inspired in its banal immediacy, translating abstract terror into specific and familiar physical terms. You can't help feeling like a visitor who has showed up at just the wrong moment. Of course, you keep staring. And if you don't, there's the chorus of five townswomen who emerge from the audience and swarm onto the stage as if to act as your proxy.
They have the feverish look of fans addicted to real-life soap operas, like the kind of people who rushed to the site of Nicole Simpson's murder and stood in line for the trial of Michael C. Skakel. Their relentless talk to Medea, shaped by a sooty mix of empathy and prurience, seems perfectly natural. So, more surprisingly, does Medea's willingness to respond to them.
Then again, as a notorious exile now spurned by even the husband who brought her here, who else does she have to talk to? Besides, as Jason (Jonathan Cake) later says nastily, he and Medea have become people who would ''rather be sung about than sing.''
This production acutely accents the talk of reputation and fame and its rewards. And you can see that Jason and, in her more befuddled way, Medea are quite keen to put forth their respective versions of their lives together. Medea knows very well she is playing to a crowd and, by extension, to history. She accepts as her due the applause that the chorus gives after she has successfully pleaded with Kreon (Struan Rodger), the king of Crete, to postpone her exile.
If it sounds as if Ms. Shaw's Medea is a smooth spinmeister, then I'm misrepresenting her. What's so mesmerizing and truly frightening about her performance is how cogently she evokes a mind that is anything but clear. This Medea is an all too sensitive instrument played upon by overwhelming forces that come from both without and within.
Among these is simple brute lust. The superb Mr. Cake's vanity-driven Jason may not be his wife's match in ingenuity. But he knows exactly where to touch Medea to turn her into jelly. Their most rancorous arguments are punctuated by perverse sexual sparks that threaten to subdue Medea into passivity. And then the spell is broken, and she emerges all the more addled and angry.
The play's grotesque climax (mercilessly rendered here), in which Medea murders her two sons, does not seem a foregone conclusion. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Warner have created a Medea who isn't even sure herself how she will act from one moment to the next. There are stretches, as Medea rants about her diabolical plans for vengeance, when you think, ''Oh, she's just playing,'' or to use the preferred psychobabble, ''acting out.''
For this Medea has a wide-ranging mind that, even in abject pain, keeps shifting perspectives on her. Suddenly, without warning, she'll do something like pick up a toy gun and simulate murder with a goofy smile. And she's funny when she's deriding her husband and his bride-to-be, finding the idea of them so unspeakable that she's reduced to making ''bleah'' and ''ick'' noises. But the noises also suggests an eloquent woman for whom words are no longer adequate.
When, toward the play's end, a messenger (Derek Hutchinson) arrives to describe the excruciating deaths of Kreon and his daughter, Jason's intended, Ms. Shaw's face goes dead white and still, showing flickers of gratification and just as often of incomprehension that her plan has come to fruition.
And therein lies the real genius of Ms. Shaw's portraiture. Real life seldom affords the tidy motives of murder mysteries or the stark psychological blueprints of novels about serial killers. And the recent spate of reality television serials have confirmed that famous people are never just the cleanly drawn cartoons we would like them to be. Witness the on-camera disintegration of Anna Nicole Smith.
Ms. Shaw and Ms. Warner have created one of the most human Medeas ever, precisely because they have refused to simplify her. Medea's acts may be monstrous, but the woman who performs them is a mass of confused impulses and thwarted drives that elude easy categorization. It is this very blurriness that makes her so vivid, so haunting and so damningly easy to identify with.
MEDEA By Euripides; directed by Deborah Warner; translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael; set by Tom Pye; costumes by Jacqueline Durran; original lighting by Peter Mumford; associate lighting designer, Michael Gunning; soundscape, Mel Mercier; sound by David Meschter. Produced in association with Max Weitzenhoffer, Roger Berlind, Old Vic Productions, Nica Burns for the Really Useful Theaters and Jedediah Wheeler. The Abbey Theater presented by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Alan H. Fishman, chairman; William I. Campbell, vice chairman; Karen Brooks Hopkins, president; Joseph V. Melillo, executive producer. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Fort Greene. WITH: Fiona Shaw (Medea), Siobhan McCarthy (Nurse), Robin Laing (Tutor), Struan Rodger (Kreon), Jonathan Cake (Jason), Joseph Mydell (Aegeus), Dylan Denton (Son) and Derek Hutchinson (Messenger).
Published: 10 - 04 - 2002 , Late Edition - Final , Section E , Column 1 , Page 5