There are a few tragedies at play on the BAM Harvey stage. The first is the one called Medea, that textbook Greek play about a woman who kills her kids because her husband wants to leave her for someone else. It has all the screaming, throat-clawing bloodshed you expect from a tragedy.
In this production, the filicide is intact, but the lead-up to it is almost entirely reworked by adaptor/director Simon Stone. That’s the second tragedy. Stone’s Medea should actually be called Debora since it more closely resembles a real-life 1995 case from Oklahoma where a physician named Debora Green also murdered her children to get back at her husband. Stone jettisons the ancient Medea for the contemporary Debora (here “Anna”) except where the details overlap: namely, the murders.
His Yerma, which played the Park Avenue Armory in 2018, hewed closer to its source material while bringing the dialogue and relationships into the 21st century. The benefit of that approach is that Lorca’s structure still applied to Stone’s new version, so the dramatic build of the classic play helped the modern one reach its fever pitch. With Medea, Stone begins the play with Anna (Rose Byrne), already having poisoned her husband (he survived and is played by Bobby Cannavale) and she’s already been committed to and released from a psychiatric ward. With all of that happening before the play even begins, how is Anna supposed to win us over to her side? If the play has already condemned her as “crazy” before the lights come up, the only thing it can do to counteract that is prove to us that she’s not crazy. But it’s Medea – if in name only – and Medea ends with child murder, so there’s no backtracking to a place of sanity. There’s only piling more shit on her and waiting for the inevitable.
Rose Byrne is truly incredible in the role, though. Given what she’s handed, she finds constantly varying shades of misery and torment in each moment. She shows that mental anguish doesn’t just look like one thing. The play only tells us she was successful, respected, and good at her job, it doesn’t tell us anything about what she was like personally. But Byrne somehow brings this former person through the bug-eyed nodding and exasperated shouts. There’s a kind, loving person in there, she’s just being shoved out of the way by agonizing circumstances. Byrne plays all of Anna’s actions like they’re the exact thing that needs to happen. They’re the only way out for her. It’s rational and calculated.
And still the audience laughs. This is the third tragedy. At the performance I attended, it felt like they brought Byrne’s recent string of (admittedly hilarious) comedic performances in with them. Byrne does find a few moments of levity in Anna’s reactions to the truly reprehensible behavior of the people around her, but they’re not the same kind of reactions she’d give to Kristen Wiig or Tiffany Haddish. They’re completely in tune with the character, someone who has found herself so far from who she thought she was that all she can do is laugh. It’s the kind of laugh that escapes when things are so bleak it’s unbelievable. That’s what Byrne is trying to elicit, but the audience roars out of proportion to that, showing that they’re not really divorced from her persona as a movie star and they’re not really invested in her pain. She hasn’t disappeared enough.
I don’t think that’s her fault. The play isn’t doing enough to make Anna a believable person. What she’s doing is much deeper and more thoughtful than the play can match. Stone is interested in trapping women in boxes (a glass one for Billie Piper in Yerma, an all-white one for Byrne in Medea) and watching them go mad. And, all right, maybe audiences like to see an actress unleash her wild side, too, but with Yerma we knew her, we felt for her, we understood it. It was a huge shift of character for her to then go so far off the rails. With Medea, it’s the only thing she can do, so the surprise and, ultimately, the heartbreak are missing. It’s almost campy, then, to see Rose Byrne The Movie Star howl about life’s injustices and set her house on fire. Of course they’re gonna laugh.