Monday, December 29, 2014

Simon Stone's Medea, toneelgroepamsterdam (review)


Medea and Jason have changed their names to Anna and Lucas.  Simon Stone’s stimulating adaptation of Euripides’ familiar classic is titled Medea and it clearly follows the plot line so closely that nobody can be surprised by the outcome. Anna is a pharmaceuticals researcher. Lucas is attracted to the much younger daughter of his own boss — Clara's name is a fine translation of Euripides' Glauke, and Christopher here is the new name for her father, Creon.

Marieke Heebink plays the lead in
Simon Stone's
Medea at Amsterdam's
Stadsschouwburg thru March 7.
A fortunate airline misfortune stranded me in Amsterdam for a choice opportunity to see this new adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Open seating allowed me to arrive a few minutes before curtain and still get the best single seat in the house, precise center of row 5. The box office clerk asked whether I would be OK with a play in Dutch. Since I have read Euripides’ play few times, I felt confident that I would be able to follow it. And I am glad I took the chance. The Stadsschouwburg will feature the Toneelgroepamsterdam through the middle of March in this extraordinarily provocative production.

The boys have personalities. They are personalized with names, even. Stagecrafting in this production puts the boys on the empty stage for at least 10 minutes before the play starts. One plays on his laptop, as the other clad in a hoodie leans idly against a wall. This dramaturgical gesture shifts the focus of the tragedy more from Medea’s solitary plight to her murder of the children themselves. During the play, the boys’ pranks involve catching Mom and Dad in bed, offstage but with video camera rolling. Mom’s far more amused than Dad to be caught in flagrante with his estranged wife. And the prank becomes a critical plot element far beyond what Euripides conceived. The kids interact with their future stepmother both before and during the delivery of Medea’s auspicious gift. Anna/Medea has been slipping into an alcoholic emotional abyss since it was clear she would not regain her husband's heart. Here, too, Stone’s script probes new depths that Euripides overlooked.

Stone has plied rather deftly his adaptor’s tool in this new play. Rather than opening with the original’s ominous fears of the Nurse — “Would that the Argo had never penetrated the Symplegades…” The play opens with Anna and Lucas in dialogue softly and face-to-face, but separated by at least 20 feet. Later, the nurse's role will be filled by a social worker who comes in on assignment to supervise Anna’s increasingly frightening activities. Anna is a 40-something mother whose self-confidence is clearly shattered by her husband’s pursuit of a girl with long legs and a powerful father. Euripides' Jason had harbored similar motives, of course, but the circumstances are naturally modernized.

The only mythological allusion I caught was an overt reference to Ovid's Philomela and Itys, with citation overtly pointed out within the text of the Metamorphoses. Anachronism such as this cannot stall pedants who want to enjoy this 21st-century adaptation, for it can't matter that Euripides' 5th-century masterpiece is explained by way of a Roman narrative. Can it?

Some technological razzmattaz draws the audience into the most intimate proximity to the actors on stage. A large screen above the stage displays projected images from a wide variety of angles throughout. When the estranged couple explicates their rift in the opening scene, an offstage camera zooms in on Medea’s face then Jason’s, and the audience can simultaneously see their distance and fading lustre of Medea’s hair, the crows feet in her saddened eyes. A stunning shot late in the play gazes down directly down, 90-degrees from the rafters high above the stage in one of the most etherial views. Is the director showing us the vantage point of Medea’s divine grandfather, the only savior for this horrific mother?

Simon Stone’s play is not especially preachy. And in its most chilling moments Medea’s unthinkable crime becomes somehow plausible. The program notes chronicle briefly the horrific parricide of the Kansas physician Debora Green who in 1995 began poisoning her estranged husband, Michael Farrar, and then burned down the family home killing two of their three children. The sensationalism of Green’s murder is the subject of Ann Rule’s book Bitter Harvest: a woman’s fury, a mother’s sacrifice (2014). Mrs. Green is serving two consecutive 40-year death sentences incarcerated in federal penitentiary. While Ann Rule’s reviewers compare Green to Medea more readily than the author herself seems to, clearly Simon Stone has knitted a mythological layer over the top of Rule’s recent NYT Bestseller.

Stone produces the plot with a good deal of verve. The play’s second half is physically dominated by ash. The first phases bring a contstant falling column of black ash that falls into a heap in the middle of the stage, thematically visualizing the ruins of Medea’s ruined marriage. Then, when the rift is final and there is no going back, the column stops but the ash heap comes into play. It is tampled. It is scattered. The actors frollick through it and grieve in it and grovel in the most telling ways. A stark-white set that is otherwise utterly void of props becomes a gutwrenching backdrop to the blackened ash of a once smoldering love affair.

 — OGCMA0643ANCIENTMedea_EuripidesStone 
—— RTM
For the toneelgroepamsterdam website: http://www.tga.nl/en/productions/medea (click)

For Simon Stone: