‘Medea’ Review: Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale, Torched by Love

Simon Stone’s contemporary spin on the classic tale of marital vengeance feels more clinical than tragic.

Comments: 45

  1. "1 hr. and 20 min.": the one good thing about bad productions like this one is that they're getting shorter all the time. Not less expensive, however.

  2. @stu freeman Stu - did you see it? I did, with two friends - we all enjoyed it quite a bit.

  3. Clinical is a very apt description of this disappointing production, and it says a great deal about the poor direction that it can even be applied to Cannavale, an actor who generally never disappoints.

  4. Time for a Medea production to be helmed by by a woman. A heavy exploration of a distinctly female experience and societal frustration/anger needs to be explored by those who feel it in truth. Enough men taking our voices.....let this dark story be told through eyes and hears who know what patriarchy can do to a soul.

  5. @Anna "men [like poet-man Euripides and, later, Seneca, even Ovid!] taking our voices..." with the historically varied help of patriarchy reps (to name a small few) Jean Anouilh, Robinson Jeffers, Yukio Ninagawa, Peter Stein, David Slavitt, Mike Bartlett, and now Simon Stone. When will enough be enough? When will "those who feel it in truth" finally speak for themselves?

  6. Time for Medea to be played by a man. For far too long women have monopolized the role.

  7. I found this production to be utterly effective and one of the most simple yet dramatic plays I've seen in years. The enlarged projections reflected close-up the complete emotional and mental breakdown of Anna in a spectacular way that would NOT have been possible by just seeing the actors on stage. The bare set made you focus only on the characters as they moved from scene to scene - no distractions. The growing anguish is palpable as we watch this tragedy move toward its end, which we all know from having read Euripides' play. I came out of the theater stunned by these amazing performances and the perfect set.

  8. The production was simple, effective and intensively moving. Contrary to Mr. Brantley's report, the play moves with a steady advancing crescendo to an apocalyptic conclusion. Notwithstanding the gothic nature of the material, it never for a moment seems forced. Far from being a clinical exercise in studying the effects of mental illness in the title character, the play is a sympathetic exploration of the reactions of a deeply damaged person to an escalating series of shocks. Whether those shocks result from betrayals (as she believes) or reasonable reactions to circumstances (as the other adult characters believe) is left open to interpretation by the audience. Finally, Mr. Brantley glosses over Ms. Byrne's performance. Magnetic, disturbing, sympathetic, dangerous - Ms. Byrne is the Medea for our time.

  9. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival premiered "Medea in Los Angeles" two or three seasons ago, and it remains the most moving production I have ever seen. It was the most devastating presentation of a deeply wounded woman whose hopelessness destroyed her and everyone around her and almost justified her actions. As the descendant of someone who made the terrible journey present in "Medea in LA," I was bereft at the end. When Medea is done well, in such a way that observers are not only entertained but empathically experience the tragedy, it is indeed cathartic, just as the Greeks intended.

  10. @Monica I saw that production at the OSF. I agree with your comments. The production was stunning.

  11. Because we live in a clinical world with no feel or love for the tragic.

  12. Medea is also my favorite of the Greek tragedies. But unlike Ben Brantley, I never saw it as a vehicle for shock and surprise. I saw it as a story of female rage and being able to understand that rage is why the current version at BAM hits so hard and so brilliantly. Rose Byrne is incredible. Transcendent. Funny, Tragic, Angry, Sympathetic, Perfect. The show belongs to her and her unhinged logic and emotion. The writing allows her to showcase what a woman will do. There was a teacher at a Brooklyn elementary school who took the lives of her children in a state of postpartum psychosis. I imagined, I'd like to imagine, that like Rose Byrne in this production, she did it in a manner that didn't frighten them. They were her children and she loved them and they were not the source of her rage.

  13. Yerma, like the original Medea, derives much of its power from the fact that it's composed in poetry by a great poet. Compare it with a companion piece, Ugo Betti's Crime on Goat Island. Contemporary psychoanalysis of these works is useless and facile. Medea is all about blind and unyielding vengeance... not female 'rage'. The fact the boys have no names is a tragic plus, not a minus. There's no need to "update" a classic like this, one that's set in an eternal moral dilemma-- not a contemporary social one.

  14. I agree with others on this thread—first of all, Rose Byrne’s performance will have you thinking back about it for days. The set and the cadence with which the emotion built was so effective. My husband and I were really blown away by it. Was very surprised to read this review and the Observer as well.

  15. This meandering review left out a detail I needed to decide to go see this or not. Do I understand that this is a play by some locals looking at a prerecorded video playing on the background? Like the few local unknowns, watching a big screen and reacting? I mean, if I will go see people watching TV and saying something about it, and is as bad as this review makes it look, I might as well stay home.

  16. @AutumnLeaf I saw the play two days ago. I don’t believe any of the video was pre recorded. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed the show quite a bit. It was fun on its own, but juxtaposed with Euripides it really shined. I suggest attending.

  17. @AutumnLeaf i see why the photo makes you think that, but Rose Byrne and Bobby Cannavale definitely appear live. Rose Byrne is onstage for almost the entire time, except for that scene pictured here.

  18. Mention the name "MEDEA" and one has to think of two great interpreters of the role performed on Broadway: ZOE CALDWELL (1982) and DIANA RIGG (1994). Both actresses won Best Actress Tony awards for their classical portrayals. The Caldwell production at the Cort Theatre--directed by the Broadway producer Robert Whitehead ( who was Caldwell's husband), co-starred Dame Judith Anderson as the Nurse. It used the Robinson Jeffers text of the play. Dame Judith originally appeared in "MEDEA" on Broadway in 1947 starring across from Sir John Gielgud as Jason--Gielgud also directed using the Robinson Jeffers text. That production was produced by Robert Whitehead and Roger Stevens in their initial Broadway venture as producers.( So much for six degrees of separation!) Dame Diana played the role to great acclaim at Wyndham's Theatre in London before bringing it to Broadway. Having twice seen the great directing job SImon Stone did with the extraordinary Billie Piper in the unforgettable modern "Yerma" at the Park Avenue Armory, I hope this "MEDEA" production will be equally traumatizing.

  19. I’ll see your Caldwell and Rigg and raise you Irene Papas, 1973. Devastating.

  20. @robert Let us not forget the magnificent Fiona Shaw in the role at BAM in 2002.

  21. I know I didn't make it up, that I've seen it in the past year, but I can't find it on google or the NYT search feature - - the Metropolitan Diary item that had two riders on a bus, holding their Diana Rigg / Medea programs, and the gist was that Prozac could really have helped change the ending.

  22. Rose Byrne gives an intense performance that covers the range of human emotions, and while I saw the opposite pair of actors playing the sons, I found them compelling too. I think one of the central problems is that Stone and his cast (based on interviews they have given) approach Medea as a thoroughly "feminist" play which seems to be something which should be grappled with or defended, not taken at face value. I'm pretty familiar with the play and I'm not saying there can't be elements that are feminist, or arguments to be made that it is, it's just that it is not a given, and there is a lot to unpack in terms of what was and is being said about women, mothers, and mothers who kill their children. One part of this issue is that we are so inundated with men killing women and being "family annihilators," and men's violence in general in various media and real life, that we have the dubious belief that depicting women doing the killing makes it automatically interesting or "feminist," or a depiction of "female rage," when the vast majority of women who have been wronged by men/the patriarchy do not commit filicide. Stone also bases this version off the real life case of Debora Green, such as the poisoning details, but without giving away too much, the circumstances of the filicide are not paralleled in enough of a way to really make sense.

  23. I loved the play and am haunted by it more than a week after seeing it. The spare set, effective use of real-time video, the acting, the script -- all superb. Learning at the end what had led up to Rose Byrne's breakdown and final catastrophic act was a surprising twist that made the play all the more satisfying.

  24. I attended last evening and thought it was a fabulous production. Mr. Brantley's view that the play's success is conditioned in part on feeling Anna's "annihilating passion" to me is misguided. I found the heart-wrenching portrayal of a couple destroyed by each of their own moral failings to be utterly gripping. I did not need to see or feel their passion. I just needed to see their humanity (or lack of it). And boy did I ever.

  25. I’m sorry to read this dispirited review because I’m a fan of Cannavale. How do directors make Greek tragedy boring? It’s a rhetorical question. I saw Elektra at the Met in recent years — I’ve seen it many times. If you’re not emotionally exhausted by the end, something’s wrong. I don’t know if it was Patrice Chéreau’s direction or Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting, but we walked out bored. Bored!! By Elektra!! It must take some real effort to make Medea boring.

  26. @David G. It's far from boring. It's just not a classic tragedy on a grand scale.

  27. Euripides kept the children without character or identity for good reason, just as they never showed violence onstage. There were strict limits.

  28. Sounds like a colossal waste of time and energy. The tragedy is that after what must have been quite and bit of time and effort this piece turns out to be "unilluminating" ineffective and without feeling. Nothing going for it except for us to ponder what Medea's children might have been like. Ugh. My hunch? BAM got caught up pandering to big names.

  29. Time to ban video in live theatre, it added absolutely NOTHING to this production. I think Ben's review was spot on. we found the background music beyond annoying, as written the clueless social worker a total disservice to those in the profession and a disappointing study of mental illness. The totally white set and the black ash are truly symbolic of a black and white vision/world of mental illness.

  30. This review is so far off the mark that it’s hard to believe Ben Brantley saw the same brilliant, searing, incredibly performed production that I did.

  31. It’s frustrating (and ironic) to read such a scattered critique about such an important play... “Medea” is is uniquely insightful and beautifully presented GEM. A “must see” for so many reasons.

  32. Euripides' Medea is about a demi-Goddess, granddaughter of the Sun God, who punishes Jason (whose life she once saved) with the help of several Gods and Goddesses. It's not about a disturbed modern woman.

  33. @reader This is not Euripides' Medea, of course. But there's nothing more in line with the classical tradition than taking liberties with an old story, as Athenian dramatists did with myths and tales from Homer. It's quite possible that Euripides himself was the first teller of Medea's story to have her kill the children deliberately--there are traces of other versions in which the townspeople kill them, or she kills them as part of a spell gone wrong. He also "updates" Jason, making him sound like a slippery 5th-century Athenian politician rather than a mythic hero. So I don't mind the changes here.

  34. @reader I loved the play! Thought the acting was riveting, especially Byrne.

  35. I totally disagree with Brantley's review. Of course, that's what makes horse races, as they say, but I thought the production was riveting and I was breathless by the end. But what do I know, I'm not a professional theatre critic.

  36. @David I totally agree with you--I was shocked at how Brantley dismissed the play. I found it riveting as well, and the acting superb.

  37. Marie Christine also had trouble with Jason. In that adaptation he was a smarmy wannabe corrupt politician. In the original, Medea commits atrocities to help Jason, but the stature of Jason would still boggle the mind of any viewer thinking not "he deserved it" or "what a jerk" but "how can she do that to Jason of the hit band Jason and the Argonauts?" Ignoring Jason or making him into a schmo unbalances the play. It would benefit even more from knowledge of the stories of the pretty revolting things Jason and Medea did as part of his legendary journeys: cutting up her brother and strewing his body parts around, convincing some girls to kill and dismember their father. It sounds like this one is working on a much smaller scale, one where divine retribution is not really on the menu.

  38. I just came home from this and thought it was astonishing. A flawless production in every way. So there Ben Brantley!

  39. My tastes usually align with BB but on this one I feel he’s way off. A riveting production and Byrne is phenomenal.

  40. @Tom Kulaga Totally agree -- this time he is way off and gave way too much away in this review. So glad I didn't read this review before seeing this incredible performance last night.

  41. Duh - it is a Greek tragedy. If you knew the story, there was no surprise to the ending.

  42. For the last few years I don’t believe I have agreed with any of Ben Brantley’s reviews. This performance is no exception. The actors were at a disadvantage in this adaptation, which was more of a daytime soap opera than a Greek tragedy. The play was mercifully short which put the actors and this audience member out of their misery in record time. What is it with today’s playwrights/directors and the use of video imagery in staging theater productions. Somebody explain the need for this gimmick as it did not add anything to the play. The audience did give the performers a mostly standing ovation. Although I am not sure that this acknowledgement has much meaning anymore. I was clapping out of courtesy for the actors and celebrating my chance to escape the tragedy that was the play.

  43. The husband let his ex have the boys sometimes because he felt guilt about his infidelity which led to her mental decline. The play was inventively and elegantly staged. Rose Byrne was laser engaging. You spent too much time writing about another production. This one deserved a more positive review.

  44. Just saw this on Saturday afternoon and I don't think I've ever paid such close attention to the stage before. Rose was AMAZING; I loved the staging and I was really happy to have the video closeups as I felt as though I could "see" into the characters' eyes. Only issue: the script hit w-a-a-y too close to home and I was in tears after the finale.