The Art of Burning
Riff on Medea At Hartford Stage
By: Karen Isaacs - Mar 21, 2023
Medea the Greek tragedy by Euripides seems to be on the minds of playwrights and directors. The new play running through March 26 at Hartford Stage, The Art of Burning makes heavy reference to Medea. Simultaneously, Yale Rep is producing Mojado: A Medea in Los Angeles. Last season, London saw a critically acclaimed production of the play itself.
It wouldn’t be surprising if you don’t remember the Greek myth of Jason and Medea or the famous tragedy. To describe the essence of the play, Medea who has been discarded by her husband Jason for another woman plots a revenge that includes murdering their children. She believes she is saving them from their father’s revenge because she has also killed the woman he loves as well as her father.
Though The Art of Burning is described as a comedy, it is really a drama centering on Patricia (Patti) who is about to be divorced from Jason, after a many year marriage (they have a 16-year-old daughter).
Playwright Kate Snodgrass tells the story nonlinearly intersplicing scenes from the past with present events.
She also deliberately and seriously misleads the audience. You may find that manipulative and irritating.
How does Medea play into this? The Art of Burning begins with Patti leaving a theater production of the Greek play. She feels “transformed” and explains how Medea had to kill the children to “save them.” She sounds fanatical and her friend, Charlene worries that perhaps it was a mistake bringing Patti to the play.
The next day, Patti and later Jason arrive at Mark’s office to sign their divorce settlement. Mark has been the neutral mediator who Patti accepted despite his being Jason’s friend; Charlene is his wife.
But just as they are about to sign, Patti, who seems nearly in a rage, announces she wants a modification: she wants sole custody of their daughter, Beth. Not only that, but she wants Jason to have no contact for a substantial period of time.
Why? This is where it gets murky. It seems that the play has caused Patti to feel they both has inculcated into their daughter some of the societal beliefs about women and a patriarchal society. She wants time to change that.
As one can imagine, Jason will not accept this change; in fact, he doesn’t truly understand it which is not surprising. Patti doesn’t clearly explain it to him or the audience. It seems more like revenge than trying to help Beth. And it isn’t the first time that Patti has made it difficult for him to see Beth.
I don’t want to reveal too much; let’s just say there are some tense moments before we get to the conclusion.
Artistic Director Melia Bensussen does a fine job with the six person cast. The problems with the play are not the fault of the director or the performers; they are built into the script.
Neither Patti’s epiphany at Medea and her subsequent actions nor the ending seem motivated. At times I wondered if it was all a sadistic game.
But that doesn’t take away from Adrianne Krstansky’s performance as Patti. She manages to make it all seem plausible. Some of the other characters – Charlene and Katya (Jason’s girlfriend) have higher hurdles. You wonder if they are simply there to be mouthpieces for points of view. Charlene (played well by Laura Latreille) tries to convince Patti that there must be some lies in a marriage. Katya (played Vivia Font) is so unrealistic in her actions that it seems laughable.
Michael Kaye is Mark – the mediator, friend and part of a marriage that is good but not ideal. Bland is the best word to describe the performance, and perhaps the character.
Clio Contogenis plays Beth as the emotionally charged teenager that parents will recognize. One moment angry and confrontational and another time needy. She balances these to parts, but again the character seems more like Patti’s pawn than a fully developed person.
Some will find this meaningful and humorous in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? way, while others may focus on the spotty motivation and the playwright’s manipulations. For me, I kept wondering what the play would have been like if Patti, instead of seeing Medea had seen a romantic comedy that evening?
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