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Theater review: UCLA Live's 'Medea' at Freud Playhouse

September 24, 2009 |  1:00 pm

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Euripides' “Medea” taps into primal emotions that frighten and fascinate us in equal measure. Try as you may to interpret the tale of a wife who, having sacrificed everything for her husband, murders their children to punish him for his unfaithfulness, there’s a mystery, a strangeness at the heart of this shocking crime that is ultimately irreducible.

That strangeness is taken to a new level in UCLA Live’s whirligig production, which opened Wednesday at the Freud Playhouse with an unsteady Annette Bening in the title role. As directed by Lenka Udovicki, a European auteur making her U.S. debut, this “Medea” often seems, frankly, bizarre — an unfortunate consequence of the stylistic flourishes and textual liberties that keep hijacking the spotlight from the actors.

The tragedy, translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael, is arrayed on a raked stage covered in sand. A rusty shanty serves as Medea’s home in Corinth, the land from which she's about to be banished by King Kreon (Daniel Davis), who doesn’t trust what this menacing woman might do to his daughter, now that she’s taken Jason to her marriage bed. Richard Hoover’s scenic design, in addition to reminding us that the Greek city is surrounded by water, suggests that Jason’s royal wedding — the self-serving act that got him into all this trouble — might really be a last-ditch effort to upgrade his family’s miserable living conditions.

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But let’s not get too bogged down in the whys and wherefores of transplanting the drama to a low-rent stretch of beach. The more you attempt to logically parse Udovicki’s bold choices, the more likelihood you’ll end up frustrated by their incoherence.

Take for example Bjanka Adzic Ursulov’s costumes, which mix postmodern MTV with vintage wear. The 12-person chorus is decked out like backup dancers at a Janet Jackson concert, lacking only conspicuous head microphones to make it seem as if they’re intoning lines from Euripides’ classic album “Rhythm Nation 431 BC.” Bening, on the other hand, dolled up like a fancy 19th century witch, occasionally invokes Stevie Nicks with a wounded expression and traumatized shock of short-cropped hair.

Should I mention the Britney Spears-like cameo of Kreon’s daughter, a vitally important character who doesn’t actually appear in Euripides’ original? More baffling still is Mary Lou Rosato’s Corinthian Woman, a Beckettian hobo, wearing a pilot hat and waving a fly swatter as she delivers the worried nurse’s introductory ramble that conveniently brings us up to date on all the soap-opera-ish goings on. Why not, à la Winnie in “Happy Days,” bury her up to her neck in a mound?

Only an academic reactionary would insist on hewing to more conventional stagecraft, especially since workable traditions for Greek tragedy have so far eluded us. A director is certainly within her rights to re-create the visual and aural palette of such a familiar canonical work as “Medea.” And to give credit where credit is due, Udovicki does conjure some marvelous shadowy effects with her lighting designer Lap-Chi Chu, and John Coleman’s sound design ominously melds with an exotic score performed by onstage musicians.

But the theatrical world, however audaciously constructed, shouldn’t regularly upstage itself — or it if does, it should have some thematic resonance. Udovicki’s tactics are, for the most part, too self-conscious to startle us into new ways of appreciating the text. With the exception of how she approaches Jason (Angus Macfadyen), normally portrayed as a shameless heel rather than a victim of his own sorry sexual opportunism, the production’s surprises are mostly interpretive duds.

“Medea” unfolds as a series of manipulations and confrontations. It requires an actress to be simultaneously fierce and cunning, for even when passion overwhelms Euripides’ protagonist, she’s still computing her retaliatory machinations, still concealing (as best she can) her rancorous intentions behind a thin facade of defenselessness.

Bening seeks to find the character’s human dimension, laying bare her vulnerability as a foreigner in a Greek land with a hesitancy of manner and speech. Despite the ghoulish wailing that precedes the actress’ entrance, it’s an inwardly directed performance in a play that requires robust theatrical and vocal command.

Medea’s touted shrewdness is never made convincing; nor is her prosecutorial fury. Most awkward are the moments when the staging compels Bening to amp up her acting. When Macfadyen’s Jason, resembling a lusty and somewhat trimmer cousin of Luciano Pavarotti, guiltily appears before her, Udovicki has her star toss a bucket of water to express a wife’s backlogged rage.

If that clichéd gesture engenders cathartic thrills, then you’ll no doubt love the fun house window revealing just what happens to Kreon and Jason’s little minx of a bride — a breach of classical decorum, which preferred the violence to be reported rather than depicted onstage, but very much in keeping with this production’s love of graphic flamboyance and obviousness.

-- Charles McNulty

"Medea." Freud Playhouse, UCLA, Westwood. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 18. $80 and $110. (310) 825-4401. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Photo: Top: Annette Bening and chorus. Bottom: Angus Macfadyen and Bening. Credit: Michael Lamont

Related story:

Annette Bening thinks Medea is a killer role





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