Of all the Greek tragedies, the one that gets produced most often is the story of the woman who, to spite her unfaithful husband, murders their children. "Medea" gets done so often simply because the role is so appealing to actresses, which somehow trumps its essentially misogynist sensibility. The acclaimed production that director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw presented a few months ago as part of the BAM Next Wave Festival has been transferred to Broadway. Shaw has done fine things. Whatever she does is worth seeing. But the production does not solve the many problems this ugly play presents. The conceit of this modern-dress version is that Medea is a star. She makes her first entrance in sunglasses. The chorus, instead of the usual anonymous group of observers, now consists of her fans. One of them carries a sign, "We Love You," when Medea first appears. All of them have grating English working-class accents. Celebrities are exempt from a lot of the moral and legal constraints that affect the rest of us. But celebrity is not enough of a metaphor to convey Medea's ancestry or magic powers. She uses a golden crown that sets itself on fire to kill her hubby's intended bride. We know celebrities can get away with murder, but do they have the power to commit it by magic? The modern impulse is at war with the mythological elements of the story. The heavily pared-down adaptation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael is full of pungent language, but here, too, the modern wars with ancient myth. Jason, for example, urging Medea to go quietly, tells her he'll provide "ash for the journey."
"My dear, be sensible," he says. How can such language coexist with Medea's description of her "father's father, the Sun?"
Shaw is an extremely jumpy Medea, her hyperactivity presumably a symptom of how unhinged she is. But crimes like hers demand a far deeper sense of gravity than she conveys. Nor does she have any quiet moments that might let us see a more complex figure beneath the understandably vindictive surface. As Jason, Jonathan Cake is similarly edgy. One scene in which the two shriek at one another is quite unbearable. The supporting cast also gives the impression that everyone in Corinth is on speed. The scene where Medea murders the children is chilling, largely because of striking visual and sound effects. Theatricality, however, is not enough to make this troubling play compelling.
Mourning becomes Electra, but do sunglasses become Medea? The answer is a slightly guarded yes.
Euripides' play is a savage tragedy of love, entitlement, lust and revenge - particularly revenge.
The Abbey Theater production of "Medea" that arrived on Broadway last night is strong on revenge.
This modern-dress production, complete with swimming pool, is also strong on irony - hence the sunglasses that the ever-remarkable Fiona Shaw wears as Medea.
Director Deborah Warner goes to some effort to express the modernity of Euripides, innovative not only in his own Athenian day in the fifth century BC, but contemporary even now.
The story is, after "Oedipus," the most familiar of Greek tragedies. Medea is brought to Greece by Jason, having helped him acquire the Golden Fleece and borne him two sons.
Jason repays her loyalty by marrying the daughter of Creon, the King of Corinth. Medea repays his treachery by poisoning the princess and Creon, then butchers her young sons.
As this version ends, Medea remains by the pool, flicking bloodstained water at Jason.
Warner's ending is more realistic than Euripides', and its tone is in keeping with Warner's feminist reading of the play.
On the whole, it works because of Shaw's manic performance - which in part is extraordinarily, and intentionally, funny. Never have I seen a "Medea" that got so many laughs or proved so thoroughly entertaining.
But when the time comes for Shaw to pull out all stops, she does so with raw emotion and a sense of ineffable danger.
She is beautifully matched by Jonathan Cake's Jason, who moves wonderfully from self-centered smugness to horror.
This is a new, more knowing, more cynical Medea than Broadway saw with Judith Anderson, Zoe Caldwell or Diana Rigg. Less tragic? Perhaps. But it is well worth seeing.
The word has gone out in Corinth that there's a celebrity in pain in the vicinity. And when the groupies who sniff for blood wounds among the incredibly famous arrive at her house, Medea doesn't disappoint.
There she is, as embodied with a harrowing lack of vanity by the brilliant Fiona Shaw, her recognizable features smudged by unhappiness, her eyes hidden by the formal shield of dark glasses, her mismatched wardrobe a thrown-on hash of running shoes, a cardigan and a little print dress. Why, she might have stepped from those pages of The National Enquirer devoted to stars foolish enough to leave home without makeup. The question is: Will she talk to us? Will she let us in on her truly sensational problems?
You bet she will. How satisfying, after all, can revenge be unless you have an audience to reflect it, to magnify it, to turn it into legend? Without their urging, how will you know who you really are?
In the thrilling Abbey Theater production of Euripides' ''Medea,'' which runs at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Oct. 12, Greek tragedy's most spectacularly vengeful woman has rematerialized in the dawning years of the 21st century. And it is, to tell the truth, a little frightening to see how comfortably this volcanically uncomfortable woman fits into the world of today.
What Ms. Shaw and the director, Deborah Warner, who collaborated so memorably on their staging of T. S. Eliot's ''Waste Land,'' have achieved here seems so obvious, when you think about it, that you're amazed it hasn't been done before. For this ''Medea'' homes in on the parallels between the very form of Greek tragedy -- with its dialogue between uncommon heroes and heroines and the common folk of the chorus -- and an age in which private breakdowns, breakups and humiliations have become public rituals.
Of course if this were the only point of Ms. Warner's ''Medea,'' it wouldn't have turned out to be the most essential ticket of this theater season. This isn't one of those stagings in which a clever concept reduces characters to glossy illustrations.
The miracle of this ''Medea'' is how completely it integrates its ideas of a latter-day culture of celebrity into a classic text, freshly translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, without ever seeming to warp the spirit of the original. The anxious perfume that saturates this production is a compound of the passion, terror and existential ambivalence that have plagued humans for as long as they have been able to think.
Ms. Shaw's Medea has little in common with the usual majestically angry sorceress who is guided by one idée fixe: to avenge herself on her husband, Jason, for whom she betrayed her homeland and who has now left her for the young princess of Corinth. There is scant evidence of the commanding icy intellect so elegantly incarnated by Diana Rigg in Jonathan Kent's production of a proto-feminist ''Medea'' on Broadway in 1994.
It's not that you doubt the intelligence of Ms. Shaw's Medea. But her lacerating misfortunes have broken the circuits of that intelligence, and her responses are a toxic jumble. She seems to wear her nerves outside her skin. Numbness and excruciating pain, shrill anger and mordant, bizarre humor flit across her raw features in disjunctive parade.
Set in a half-finished courtyard littered with children's toys and cinder blocks (the designer is Tom Pye), suggesting a life interrupted, the entire production seems to occur in that heightened, instinct-addling realm that occurs during times of emergency. The evening begins in a state of breathlessness that never really lets up. And as upsetting as much of it is, the show radiates such high theatrical energy and insight that you can't help grinning through most of it.
The first image is of Medea's Nurse (Siobhan McCarthy), represented here as a student au pair type, rushing onto the stage with a handful of knives. She is also, it turns out, carrying bottles of pills. And she proceeds to hide these commonplace household objects, which in this context have suddenly turned threatening.
This interpolated scene is inspired in its banal immediacy, translating abstract terror into specific and familiar physical terms. You can't help feeling like a visitor who has showed up at just the wrong moment. Of course, you keep staring. And if you don't, there's the chorus of five townswomen who emerge from the audience and swarm onto the stage as if to act as your proxy.
They have the feverish look of fans addicted to real-life soap operas, like the kind of people who rushed to the site of Nicole Simpson's murder and stood in line for the trial of Michael C. Skakel. Their relentless talk to Medea, shaped by a sooty mix of empathy and prurience, seems perfectly natural. So, more surprisingly, does Medea's willingness to respond to them.
Then again, as a notorious exile now spurned by even the husband who brought her here, who else does she have to talk to? Besides, as Jason (Jonathan Cake) later says nastily, he and Medea have become people who would ''rather be sung about than sing.''
This production acutely accents the talk of reputation and fame and its rewards. And you can see that Jason and, in her more befuddled way, Medea are quite keen to put forth their respective versions of their lives together. Medea knows very well she is playing to a crowd and, by extension, to history. She accepts as her due the applause that the chorus gives after she has successfully pleaded with Kreon (Struan Rodger), the king of Crete, to postpone her exile.
If it sounds as if Ms. Shaw's Medea is a smooth spinmeister, then I'm misrepresenting her. What's so mesmerizing and truly frightening about her performance is how cogently she evokes a mind that is anything but clear. This Medea is an all too sensitive instrument played upon by overwhelming forces that come from both without and within.
Among these is simple brute lust. The superb Mr. Cake's vanity-driven Jason may not be his wife's match in ingenuity. But he knows exactly where to touch Medea to turn her into jelly. Their most rancorous arguments are punctuated by perverse sexual sparks that threaten to subdue Medea into passivity. And then the spell is broken, and she emerges all the more addled and angry.
The play's grotesque climax (mercilessly rendered here), in which Medea murders her two sons, does not seem a foregone conclusion. Ms. Shaw and Ms. Warner have created a Medea who isn't even sure herself how she will act from one moment to the next. There are stretches, as Medea rants about her diabolical plans for vengeance, when you think, ''Oh, she's just playing,'' or to use the preferred psychobabble, ''acting out.''
For this Medea has a wide-ranging mind that, even in abject pain, keeps shifting perspectives on her. Suddenly, without warning, she'll do something like pick up a toy gun and simulate murder with a goofy smile. And she's funny when she's deriding her husband and his bride-to-be, finding the idea of them so unspeakable that she's reduced to making ''bleah'' and ''ick'' noises. But the noises also suggests an eloquent woman for whom words are no longer adequate.
When, toward the play's end, a messenger (Derek Hutchinson) arrives to describe the excruciating deaths of Kreon and his daughter, Jason's intended, Ms. Shaw's face goes dead white and still, showing flickers of gratification and just as often of incomprehension that her plan has come to fruition.
And therein lies the real genius of Ms. Shaw's portraiture. Real life seldom affords the tidy motives of murder mysteries or the stark psychological blueprints of novels about serial killers. And the recent spate of reality television serials have confirmed that famous people are never just the cleanly drawn cartoons we would like them to be. Witness the on-camera disintegration of Anna Nicole Smith.
Ms. Shaw and Ms. Warner have created one of the most human Medeas ever, precisely because they have refused to simplify her. Medea's acts may be monstrous, but the woman who performs them is a mass of confused impulses and thwarted drives that elude easy categorization. It is this very blurriness that makes her so vivid, so haunting and so damningly easy to identify with.
There are few things more terrifying than a maniac who speaks softly.
When Fiona Shaw makes her entrance in the title role of the Abbey Theatre's brilliant, shattering new production of Medea, she is a model of tenuous composure. "Ladies, Corinthians, I'm here," she tells the chorus of horrified, fascinated women who just moments ago were listening to her rant and howl offstage. "Don't think ill of me."
What follows this superficial calm is the most captivating storm you're ever likely to witness on a Broadway stage. Fueled by Shaw's mind-bending, soul-wrenching performance, this piercingly visceral Medea opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on Tuesday after sold-out runs in London, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. Its current engagement, which ends Feb. 22, is required viewing for any theater fan, though the faint of heart are advised to bring along a companion or object they can grip tightly.
With Shaw as her muse and translators Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael as her abettors, director Deborah Warner has concocted a fresh spin on Euripides' classic that amounts to the emotional and psychological equivalent of a harrowing roller-coaster ride. The revival feels decidedly contemporary, with actors milling about in Jacqueline Durran's functional street clothes. When Medea's wayward husband, Jason, first appears, played with breathtaking brio by Jonathan Cake, he is clad in jeans and a white T-shirt, the picture of casual modern masculinity.
That's not to say that this Medea is scrupulously realistic. The ultimate dramatic account of a woman scorned focuses on the most unnatural of crimes, and Warner and her creative colleagues aren't bound by naturalism in presenting it. The centerpiece of Tom Pye's brightly stark set is a pool of water that becomes a place of baptism and a pathetic refuge. David Meschter's sound design buzzes and wails ominously, then erupts when Medea commits the act that defines her reputation as a proto-feminist monster.
Michael Gunning's lighting shifts abruptly and harshly, sometimes guiding actors who run up and down the aisles, oblivious to the rapt viewers around them. Having performers mill about in the audience is standard practice at frothy musicals, but believe me: Once Cake's Jason rushes past you en route to confronting Medea about his murdered lover, you may never feel entirely safe in a theater seat again.
Struan Rodger is equally bracing as the furious Kreon, while Siobhan McCarthy and Robin Laing turn in urgent performances as Medea's nurse and her children's tutor. The women in the chorus are also superb, capturing the morbid curiosity the flamboyantly mad inspire more and more in a media-saturated culture.
In the end, of course, the show belongs to the magnificent Shaw, whose Medea embodies both the ugliest ravages of vengeance and the injustices that women, and all passionate creatures, remain vulnerable to. However devastating her journey may be, it's a trip well worth taking.
Although we might like to think otherwise, it's really not often that Broadway plays host to a great actress's encounter with a great classical role, so the conflagration onstage at the Brooks Atkinson Theater -- Fiona Shaw's soon to be legendary performance as Euripides' Medea -- qualifies as a major event. Whether it will find the audience it deserves in an uncommonly busy Broadway environment is a troubling question: The tale of a woman driven by betrayal to commit the most monstrous of crimes, infanticide, is not exactly a theatrical stocking stuffer, is it?
But critics returning to the show after its brief fall run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- and audiences discovering it for the first time -- will eagerly spread the word. Deborah Warner's production is, in the relative intimacy of a Broadway house, even more astonishing than it was in Brooklyn. From the opening moments, it grabs you by the throat, and it doesn't let go until the shattering conclusion -- by which time uncontrollable sobbing could be heard from more than one member of the audience. This is the rare production of a classic that packs the visceral jolt of -- dare I say it? -- a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, alongside the searing emotional intensity of the greatest tragic theater.
That's not to suggest that Warner and her collaborators cheapen the material by distorting its essence. They simply translate it, much as Baz Luhrmann & Co. are doing with vastly different material, into a contemporary language, both visual and literary, that speaks directly to us.
Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael's adaptation is intelligent, terse, witty and down-to-earth -- the perfect vehicle for Shaw's clear-headed but hot-blooded Medea. The costumes by Jacqueline Durran are contemporary casual, with Medea sporting an incongruously pretty slip of a dress that she later exchanges for a hooded white shroud that magnifies the vivid horror of the blood she spills. The set, by Tom Pye, is a bit problematic on a Broadway stage, since its centerpiece, a pool of water, is virtually invisible from the orchestra seats. But one admires even more the way Medea's outraged fury and, later, her horrible acts are made eerily present, even when she is offstage, through the terrifically effective sound design of David Meschter and Mel Mercier.
In BAM's Harvey Theater, some of the supporting performances -- the often-hysterical outbursts from the chorus, for instance -- seemed overly intense, but the paradoxical revelation of the move to a theater that puts the audience in closer proximity is that they seem so no longer. The nervous tension they exude bleeds right off the stage and into the audience, so that by the time Shaw's Medea works up the conviction to commit her monstrous acts, viewers are -- for once the cliche is entirely apt -- on the edge of their seats.
When the violence finally arrives, it is staged with a naturalness that magnifies the horror, and a wave of agony spreads across the theater. Such is the force of the production that Medea's murder of her children, the most foregone of conclusions, comes as a dismaying, disorienting shock.
The supporting performances, indeed, the production as a whole, seem in some way merely a reflection of Shaw's Medea, a woman who is being slowly tortured on the rack of her own feelings. The erotic power her husband still holds over her -- they melt into each other's arms even as they exchange venomous accusations -- adds to the burden of humiliation borne by Shaw's fiercely proud Medea, and thus fuels her fury, too. The clarity of Shaw's acting brings every torturous moment alive for us: We wince at this woman's wounds, share her moments of exultation, bridle at Jason's easy rationalization of his acts, even share, at least in the beginning, in the thrill of her vengeance.
That Jonathan Cake's performance as Jason holds its own against the energies unleashed by Shaw is a testament to the actor's skill, as well as his natural magnetism. This Medea and her Jason have a palpably potent sexuality, too -- just one of many uncommon, unforgettable elements in this extraordinary production.