No matter how they are reinvented, there are certain elements of the best-known Greek tragedies that are simply unavoidable. We hear their names and immediately make associations. The familiar story of Medea, the mother who murdered her children to punish her husband Jason for leaving her, is no exception. Yet La MaMa's current production of The Medea, conceived and directed by Jay Scheib, makes admirable strides in changing our concept of the play by addressing not just its emotional content but its structure as well. Performed in reverse chronological order, this Medea pays homage to the modern detective novel and attempts to circumvent the audience's anticipation of the play's end and instill a fresh sense of suspense in the text. As a means to a cataclysmic end, Scheib uses this method, as well as such multimedia as operatic live music and edgy video, to heighten moments in the play that often get overlooked.
Frequently successful and always engaging, The Medea provides a new way of looking at a classic. Though sometimes confusing and tangential, this Medea takes a bold look at a succession of small events and how they add up.
At the start of the show, the nurse, who throughout the play acts as a meditative and horrified observer, stands at the back of the stage. The set that the audience sees consists of a dark mess of chairs, brick walls, and a large mirror. There is also a haphazardly constructed, ceilingless room onstage.
Michael Byrnes's scenic design offers an interesting contrast of environments and action. The inside of the room, visible only through video cameras that selectively broadcast the room's happenings on two large onstage monitors, is usually a calm, warmer place than outside onstage. Lined with a panoramic picture of tropical islands, the room offers a respite where music is played and where Medea can gather her thoughts. One of the most interesting moments, when Medea seduces Jason one last time in a violent, graphic sex scene, is simultaneously coupled with images of the nurse and Medea's sons smiling and eating apples with casual enjoyment in the room.
Mostly, though, the scenes evolve simply. Interestingly, with the Medea myth stripped of its natural progression, its moments come in short bursts, and the most powerful moments are revealed not by Jason or Medea but by the character whose perspective comes the closest to being comprehensive: the nurse. Played by Aimee McCormick, the nurse stands bent and in awe of the happenings around her. Though the chronology is reversed, one senses that the nurse understands the ominous nature of each moment.
This is a privilege that is taken away from Zishan Ugurlu, who plays Medea with a series of slow-burning stares and violent, physical outbursts. Without the play's natural build, this Medea loses her decision process and feels falsely violent.
One of the most provocative and surprising elements to surface from this spin on Medea's family relationships is the reaction from her sons, played by Dima and Oleg Dubson with alarming, heavy-eyed detachment. Their laissez-faire attitude toward the chaos around them and their willingness to comply with the biddings of their disturbed mother are at once hilarious and horrible to watch. The consistency with which the sons move through each scene, as if not caring about what their eventual ends might be, is bizarrely intriguing.
The Medea is well acted and very interestingly conceived. Scheib's detective-story format provides an unusual method of building suspense and drawing focus to perhaps overlooked moments of this epic myth. Yet what he loses in this retelling is the characters' self-reflection, and the motivation behind the chaos.