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by Lucy Komisar

MEDEA--Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake (Joan Marcus photo)

Written by Euripides. Translated by Kenneth McLeish & Frederic Raphael.
Directed by Deborah Warner
Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 West 47th Street
Ticketmaster (212) 307-4100
Opened December 10, 2002
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 17, 2002.

A modern tabloid story, a B-movie, a thriller. Deborah Warner's brilliant Abbey Theatre staging of "Medea" takes the 2500-year-old of story of a woman scorned and, with a contemporary translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, turns an ancient Greek tragedy into a tawdry, lurid and very feminist story that has you thinking of the killer as heroine.

The space where the action takes place (designed by Tom Pye) is an upscale courtyard. The square marble-bottomed pool at center could be a garden fish pond. Concrete blocks and wood planks are stacked as though the place were not yet finished. The backdrop is white brick, and in front of that, a glass wall sets off a corridor. Children's toys, a teddy bear, a toy train, are scattered carelessly.

Yet, the domesticity has been smashed by Jason (Jonathan Cake) who is leaving Medea (Fiona Shaw) to marry the daughter of King Kreon of Corinth. In this modern-dress version, the discarded Medea is not alone: she leans on the solidarity of other women.

Her nurse (Siobhan McCarthy) rails at her mistress's sorrow - and hides some knives, discards vials of pills. To keep them from Medea? The Greek chorus is five neighbors, with dress of lower status, who've come to offer solace. This opening is the only weak part of the play; McCarthy's shrill shrieking is all on one note, with her words and those of the chorus often difficult to comprehend.

Fiona Shaw's ironically understated entrance changes all that: "Ladies, Corinthians, I'm here!" As Medea faces them grimly, wearing dark glasses to hide her red eyes, the women counsel her, "There's no need to break your heart."

But for Medea, life is over. She betrayed her royal family to marry Jason; she can't go home again. In a low, deep voice, Shaw relives the perfidy and the pain. "We scratch and save to get a dowry and then he lords it over us. A wife must learn every trick to keep the man. A husband tired of domesticity goes out, sees friends, enjoys himself."

Warner has turned this from a story about a monstrous child-killer into a rather ordinary, and thus more chilling, tale of a deceived housewife.

With insouciant, throw-away gestures, Warner has Medea mock her own plight. She declares, "I am despised by my husband, a souvenir from foreign parts," then kicks up a leg to emulate a kitchy statuette.

This Medea is a woman at wit's end, suffering in every pore, who nevertheless hasn't lost a sense of irony even as she is whipsawed by her emotions. She remarks, "What use is cleverness, it only embarrasses other people."

She gathers strength from the women who, in Scottish, British, and Irish accents, declare, "Men must recognize our power…. If women had a voice…we'd sing of men's outrageousness."

She's been given a day to begin her exile. Storming with fury, she explodes, "I've got one day to make all three chopped meat, father, daughter and the man I hate."

Jason in jeans, white T, and sneakers, is the compleat opportunist. "I don't want her," he seeks to assuage his current wife about his next one. "I want property, security." When Jason changes to beige patent loafers, a white jacket and a see-through glittery shirt - gaudy mafia garb - the clothes describe the tackiness of the man. Cake plays him powerfully, as a con-man.

Another antagonist, King Kreon, is deftly portrayed by Struan Rodger as a red-faced, blonde nasty who reminds you of a Southern good-ole-boy.

This is not a "tragedy" about larger-than-life figures, but a tawdry tale of an ordinary marriage. There are curious moments where Medea and Jason embrace. You get the sense that each one is again manipulating the other.

Medea, who is upper class, wears a sundress and sneakers, pays no attention to her clothes, has no make-up on her wan face, a clue to how much she has lost her sense of self. She plays with a toy gun, seems inchoate, but is diabolical enough to plan the excruciating murder of her rival. A member of the chorus throws up in distress. Background music pulsates, seems like the whirr of industrial machinery, then of airplanes on a bombing mission. The tension rises.

Shaw is stunningly casual in her interpretation. This is why women kill, director Warner is telling us. Not because they are evil or crazy, but because they are unhinged by men's betrayal. [Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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