Fiona Shaw as Medea
(Photo: Neil Libbert)
Fiona Shaw as Medea
(Photo: Neil Libbert)
Fiona Shaw's Medea enters Tom Pye's Frank Gehry-like cinder block and Plexiglass evocation of ancient Corinth to speak in carefully measured tones. This is after a worried nurse has described Medea's furious mood and, indeed, after the mad woman is overheard raging through palace corridors. As she paces around a foot-deep pool in which a son's toy boat drifts placidly, she explains with calculated rationality how her woes as a woman estranged from her homeland and now from her husband are proliferating. She doesn't keep her Colchian cool for long, however, but accelerates into rage and decelerates from it, often in a frightening instant, as the women whom she's befriended in her adopted country attempt to calm her and serve as embodiments of her own more mitigating internal thoughts.

When Jason, the adventurer for whom she has betrayed a father and murdered a brother, enters to trivialize his motives for casting her off in favor of Kreon's daughter and security, she falls limply against him, indicating the physical need still surging through her. Saying that she doesn't want to be considered a souvenir, she strikes the angular pose of a figure on an Egyptian amphora; saying she also doesn't want to be thought of as a slave, she lifts the hem of a sweater she's wearing over a floral-print house dress and drapes it over her nose, imitating a coy harem girl. She shows a gift for black humor, as when she says to the self-satisfied Jason, "I just want to thank you for all your foresight."

As she addresses the children she has decided to slay, she sits them in front of her, maternally taking their hands and kissing their heads. When she has stabbed one of the sons behind a wall and runs out to snare the other fleeing child, she is rigid with determination. When she listens to a messenger give the details of Jason's princess bride's death by poison slathered on a silk garment sent to her by Medea, she stands wryly smiling.

Those are only a small number of attitudes the inventive Shaw strikes in a brilliant portrayal of the famous murdering mom. In 85 concentrated minutes, she incorporates many elements and scants only one, about which more later. For this revival of Euripides's relentless Medea, Shaw again is working with director Deborah Warner -- who understands that, if she wants to make a mark, it's a good idea to be as unflinching as the playwright whose work she's interpreting. Of the Warner-Shaw collaboration, which began with a 1989 Electra and has continued with Richard II (Shaw playing the title character) and an astringent reading of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land, cultural reporter Alan Riding coined the term "The Terrible Twins." He was on to something, because whenever this duo plumb classical literature, a terrible beauty is born. Not surprising, since W. B. Yeats -- who minted the "terrible beauty" line -- and Shaw are both Irish and never suppress urges to flaunt their insider-outsider status as Irishmen and artists.

That terrible beauty glints throughout this treatment, and not just off the reflecting, plexiglass doors and on the pool -- which, by the way, is much smaller than the one in Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses. Convinced that Medea's plight is cogent in a world where someone like distraught mother Susan Smith sends her children to a watery death and, in a more timeless sense, in a world where passion still overwhelms reason, Warner creates an environment cluttered by pallets with stone slabs on them and with toys strewn around to be kicked out of people's paths. At one moment, Medea idly picks up a small, pliable dinosaur and, at another, sets fire to a stuffed animal.

To illustrate the frenzy that has gripped Medea's confines, Shaw sends actors bounding up and down the Harvey Theater's aisles and perches them precariously on those loaded pallets. They yell through a grate surrounding the pool in hopes of getting through to the Medea rampaging underneath; they cower in corners. When Aeneus arrives and agrees to harbor Medea if she comes to Athens after leaving Corinth, he and she stage an oath-taking ritual at the pool. (Behind Aeneus's back, Medea rolls her eyes at his superstitious impulses.) One member of the chorus -- they speak individually, not in unison -- vomits when she hears Medea's homicidal plans.

There is practically no end to Warner's iconoclastic inclusions. The members of the cast speak in a rainbow coalition of accents, thus underlining the tragedy's theme of foreignness. Everyone wears street clothes by designer Jacqueline Durran and avoids anything resembling regal bearing. These are people who can put children's music on their radios and televisions. (What else is that tinkling song playing benignly through Medea's criminal exploit?) They're people who pull up a cinder block when they want to sit and fall upon the ground when the breath has been whooshed from them. The characters speak idiomatically: Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael are credited with the translation, and they don't resist using exclamations like "bluh" (as in Medea's referring to Jason's impending "bluh marriage"). The denizens of this Medea are bourgeois neighbors, not members of an elite class. This undoubtedly accounts in part for Warner's lopping off Euripides's ending where Medea, having mentioned that she's granddaughter to a god, is carried off in a chariot Zeus has dispatched.

Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake in Medea(Photo:  Fatima Kafele)
Fiona Shaw and Jonathan Cake in Medea
(Photo: Fatima Kafele)
The hurried paces through which Warner puts her cast pay off, because the cast -- lit by Peter Mumford and Michael Gunning and declaiming over Mel Mercier and David Meschter's often cacophonous sound design -- is so committed. Jonathan Cake's handsome and strapping but smug Jason is the cocky guy working his wiles at every singles bar. Kreon is Struan Rogers, who raises neck hairs when he chastises Medea by forcing her to the floor in submission. The text's urgency is further bold-faced by Siobhan McCarthy's nurse, Robin Lang's (Scottish) tutor, Joseph Mydell's Aeneus, and Derek Hutchinson's wild-eyed messenger. The chorus includes Kirsten Campbell, Joyce Henderson, Rachel Isaac, Pauline Lynch, and Susan Salmon. At the performance I saw, Medea's romping boys were played, with simplicity and charm, by Dylan Denton and Michael Tommer (they alternate with Corey Devlin and Alex Scheitinger.)

Shaw is, of course, the hub about which the accomplished cast revolves, and she succeeds triumphantly in just about every regard but one. Though she amuses, cajoles, criticizes, and horrifies both during her murderous rout and after, when she off-handedly breaks the mast off of one of the toy boats, she never shatters the heart. It's true that grief can often look like defiance -- but it also can look like grief. If Shaw were to show profound, naked remorse just for an instant after Medea has knifed her sons, she might stimulate the audience not only to the standing ovation they give her but to cathartic sobs, as well.

Maybe because Shaw and Warner have paid so much attention to impassioned frenzy in the production, they have overlooked the potential for a kind of throbbing silence as Euripides' grisly piece ends. They've overlooked nothing else, however, and have executed (word carefully chosen) a Medea that must not be overlooked.