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Medea Isn’t Nice

On the first day of previews for the first show he’s actually producing (rather than inviting a company in), UCLA Live director David Sefton appeared remarkably calm, though he described a gnawing feeling in the pit of his stomach. “Oh, that,” he explained at a corner booth of a Westwood eatery, “that must be Medea.

That’s when the director he hired to stage the epic, Lenka Udovicki, bounced in — an olive-skinned woman of Bolivian-Yugoslav descent who grew up in Belgrade. She has a distinguished reputation for staging operas and ballets in Europe, and had to flee the Balkans when her husband, Rade Serbedzija, a well-known Serbian actor from Croatia, was exposed for being in the peace movement and against the kind of nationalism then sweeping the region.

“We were living in London as the war broke out,” Udovicki explained. “It reached a point where we couldn’t go back.”

As Serbedzija picked up TV and film work in Hollywood in the early ’00s, the family relocated to Los Angeles, where, Udovicki says, she felt adrift from the lack of theater that interests her. UCLA Live, she says, provided an oasis. She also picked up a teaching and directing assignment at Cal Arts, where she directed a student production of Hamlet. She’d only met Annette Bening at a social occasion, yet she girded up the confidence to call her and ask if she’d be interested in playing Medea. When Bening said yes, Udovicki immediately e-mailed Sefton, whom she’d known from dinner parties, and whom she’d met at an international theater festival in Dublin.

“Normally, she was always wanting to talk about art,” Sefton said. “But this e-mail I remember and responded to immediately because it said, ‘I want to,’ no, ‘I need to talk to you about work.’ ”

The project couldn’t have been financed without Bening, Sefton remarked, at least not the scale of production that exists at UCLA.

“I went to my board and said, ‘How about we produce Medea with Annette Bening?’ They didn’t even flinch.”

Udovicki said she knew she wanted a large chorus that would sing, in the style of epics from central and eastern Europe. She conducted training workshops at Cal Arts and UCLA, and cast her chorus from those students. (They’re all now performing with full union contracts.) Udovicki added that Bening showed up for those workshops and threw herself into the process.

Yet there’s something fundamentally different about American students and European students, Udovicki noted. It’s hard for the American students — or, at least, the privileged Americans that she’s been working with — to find the deeper truths, the ugliness, that reside in the soul. Because, she says, they’re so nice, so well-behaved and eager to please.

“Where I come from,” Udovicki says, “we lie to our parents, we cheat on our exams, because that’s all training for our corrupt society that will destroy us if we don’t learn how to survive by our wits.”

“When I directed Hamlet,” she added, “the American students all thought that every character was speaking the truth. That was unbelievable to me. That’s just not the world I know.”