Annette Bening’s “Medea,” produced by UCLA Live for its Intl. Theater Festival, is a steely, resolutely feminist interpretation of Euripides’ timeless child murderess. Medea proves hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, even if much fury has dissipated before helmer Lenka Udovicki’s production has barely begun.
Udovicki is interested in the purifying, even self-actualizing aspects of the vengeance on Jason, who has taken up with a younger princess although his sons’ mother once committed treason and murder on his behalf. The sand-covered stage keeps things elemental along with invocations to Mother Earth, conveying a ritualistic religious quality. It’s hypnotic, certainly, though not entirely involving.
There are initial signs of coming fireworks. A helmet-wearing street crazy (Mary Lou Rosato) wields a flyswatter while caterwauling the backstory, as if about to demand the gods give her a dollar. She beats ineffectually against Richard Hoover’s huge concrete slabs representing the palace of Corinth, a Constructivist vision of Eastern European totalitarianism. (Udovicki heads Croatia’s experimental Theater Ulysses.)
High-tension lines show which way the power runs, literally and figuratively, to a rusty lean-to, from which emanate disturbing wails eerily accompanied by the Lian Ensemble, local performers of Sufi mystical melodies on traditional instruments. Surely we’re to be transported to the violent, passionate East.
But then Bening nobly emerges, her hair shorn beneath a veil like an enemy collaborator, blood-red gown covered by costume designer Bjanka Adzic Ursulov with a black cloak to symbolize stamped-down passion.
Bening’s is an incantatory Medea, intoning her speeches as if she’s already passed through the fire into a fugue state. Was the interpretation inspired by real-life child murderers like Susan Smith, who often speak of their strange dissociation from their acts? Certainly this Medea often seems numbed by the enormity of her revenge plot, conscious rage only fitfully glimpsed.
Udovicki downplays external forces as well. Rosato’s darting schizophrenic is no longer the Nurse (who would entrust children to her care?), so gone is the countervailing presence of the woman who suckled the victims-to-be.
The chorus, ordinarily reluctant to go along with Medea’s logic, is a troupe of singer-dancers in clinging black resembling a ninja squadron. They seem manifestations of her psyche — when she’s confused, they stumble; when she gets sexual their bodices open to reveal crimson brassieres — so they mirror rather than challenge her.
And Bening could eat the men for breakfast. Kreon (Daniel Davis) lacks kingliness in his flowing overcoat draped over the shoulders, couturial shorthand for “effete Fascist.” Banishing Medea from Corinth out of fear, Davis is a dithering Louis XV with his own Madame DuBarry.
Childless Athenian king Aigeus (Hugo Armstrong) struggles in on crutches, though he’s able to toss them aside by scene’s end to affirm Medea retains some of her old healing power.
Faithless Jason (Angus Macfadyen) is a burly metrosexual with a stay-at-home dad’s sensitivity. Far from a supreme egotist smoothly justifying appalling betrayal, he seems genuinely convinced of his plan’s wisdom (“I marry not for sex but to care for you to protect us all”). His cluelessness is no match for his first wife’s implacable destiny, which admits only momentary pause before she strikes.
Even the murders are relatively discreet, none of the splashed blood that galvanized Fiona Shaw’s ordinary-housewife Medea years ago. The horror’s already been worked through.
This isn’t to take away from Bening’s commitment. If she lacks the voice to pull off lines like “Spirits of vengeance, dark in the deep of hell!” this Medea isn’t given to displays of temper anyway. And throwing herself into throat-singing and dance hints at the inner torment she won’t otherwise reveal.
It’s just that by systematically removing Medea’s extremer and less flattering elements — extravagant sexuality, doubt, self-contempt, gleeful witchcraft — Bening and Udovicki don’t just make her more psychologically understandable, they also render her less varied and less interesting.