UCLA’s David Sefton has never before produced a show for the international festival he curates at UCLA Live. His first effort, Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s 1994 adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, now at UCLA’s Ralph Freud Playhouse, is both audacious and rewarding on many levels. It does, however, stand in the shadows of the world-class theater companies seen in European festivals, as well as troupes that Sefton has brought to this very stage in the past.
By the time companies such as the Suzuki Company of Toga (Japan), the Mabou Mines or the Wooster Group make the international festival rounds, the work they’ve been developing has been in the oven for years, sometimes decades. It’s presumptuous to believe that such a standard can be matched here with production costs that so restrict the length of rehearsals. (Director Lenka Udovicki worked with her chorus in laboratories at both UCLA and Cal Arts, from which most of the chorus members were hired.)
What we get is a highly conceptual staging — accompanied by the Liam ensemble playing Persian instruments onstage — that contains a beauty so pronounced, it distracts from some dicey physical precision in the execution of Udovicki’s carefully constructed choreography that sculpts her chorus into tableaux reflecting the shapes of Medea’s conscience; and in Bjanka Adzic Ursulov’s costumes that range from Edwardian/Disney ball-gown chic to Venice Beach hobo.
Richard Hoover’s set places the action on a raked floor of sand, with looming concrete slabs serving as a backdrop. A crude pipe at stage right terminates at a chest-level spigot, from which characters shower themselves. Near that pipe stands a shed of corrugated steel, wherein Medea (Annette Bening) resides, as the homeless person she now is, having been banished by King Kreon (Daniel Davis, in a robust turn). Medea’s ex, Jason (Angus Macfadyen), is to wed Kreon’s young daughter. Medea is understandably peeved, having estranged her own father for Jason, and also having collaborated in dangerous assassinations on his behalf. As an excuse, the best Jason can offer is that with royal connections (and bedding the king’s daughter ranks well up there, as connections go), he can provide financial security for his ex-wife, and for the sons he sired with her. The problem, of course, is that Medea lost her temper and cursed Kreon’s family. So now she, and her boys, are banished. Silly woman, Jason chides her — you brought this on yourself.
Medea pleads with Kreon for, and gets, a 24-hour reprieve — just time enough to hatch a plot to slaughter Jason’s bride, as well as her own children. Hell hath no fury . . .
I should also mention that power pole towering behind the concrete barricade. One of its frayed wires dribbles down to Medea’s shed, illuminating a single, unadorned bulb dangling near the wall. There’s a kind of visual poetry in that, and in the power surges and/or electrical short circuits that provide a justification for Lap-Chi Chu’s beautifully sculpted shifts of lighting. These shifts help to create the elegant, elegiac physical environs of a no man’s land outside some Green Zone of Udovicki’s imagination. This is, after all, a legend of betrayal stemming from changing rules and shifting sands. When Medea commits her heinous deeds, it’s the unbearable consequence of unbending logic, that if an oath betrayed has no dire consequences, oaths — being the core tenets of family and of the civilization that cradles them — mean nothing. In this marriage-gone-bad lies the history of the world.
All the production’s flash and splash, and the story’s carefully wrought clarity, can’t distract from the vacuity at the core of the central marriage-gone-awry, through the constipated textures of Bening and Macfadyen’s interplay. Though there’s one scene in which Medea fakes a reconciliation, and the tenderness of Jason’s relieved response contains a harrowing authenticity, when they reach inward, emotionally, to touch the marrow of their own bones while aiming to fill the massive scale of the legend, the strain is too evident, as neither possesses the range required for these Herculean roles. When one conjures the memories of Yukiko Saito’s Elektra (for Tadashi Suzuki), of her voice soaring in an instant from a bear’s growl to the lilt of a songbird; or Maude Mitchell’s Amazonian Nora in the Mabou Mines Dollhouse, the main performances at UCLA dissolve into shadow.
MEDEA | By EURIPIDES, adapted by KENNETH McLEISH and FREDERIC RAPHAEL, produced by UCLA LIVE | UCLA, RALPH FREUD PLAYHOUSE | Through October 18 | (310) 825-4401