THEATER REVIEW; Fitting the Modern Age To the Classic Greek Form

Published: December 11, 2002

The Abbey Theater's production of ''Medea'' was performed in October at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of this season's Next Wave Festival. Following are excerpts from Ben Brantley's review, which appeared in The New York Times on Oct. 4; the full text is online at The play opened last night at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, 256 West 47th Street.

In the thrilling Abbey Theater production of Euripides' ''Medea,'' 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 Fiona Shaw, in the title role, and the director, Deborah Warner, who collaborated so memorably on their staging of T. S. Eliot's ''Wasteland,'' have achieved 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 the current theater season. This isn't one of those stagings in which a clever concept reduces characters to glossy illustrations.

Indeed, 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 an idée fixe: to avenge herself on her husband, Jason (the excellent Jonathan Cake), 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 in times of emergency. The evening begins in a state of breathlessness and it 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.

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.