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MEDEA Review - Annette Bening Kicks Off UCLA Live's Eighth International Theatre Festival

By Wayne Bethanis

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Annette Bening and Angus Macfadyen

Stark concrete walls and pixie-like Greek chorus girls replaced columns and togas for director Lenka Udovicki’s updated World Premiere of Euripides’ MEDEA. The stage was a vast expanse of beach sand, vaguely evoking a playground, complete with a giant toy trolley car on a track leading to the drawbridge of Corinth (the trolley would later be the modus operandi of MEDEA’S apocryphal slain children played with a sweet innocence by brothers Logan and Jacob Karlan ).  The great city itself was represented by towering concrete walls, which revealed only an electricity pole peaking atop the center.

As I walked into UCLA’s Frued Theatre, having to pass through a picket line of theatre crew protestors handing out flyers about a labor dispute, I knew I was in for some high drama.

Archetypal experiences happen to us every second.  These underlying realities of our lives are the same ones that  folks in ancient Greece experienced. My father is Greek, and I have always romanticized a deeper connection to ancient Greek culture through my memories of various nick-nacks that lined the shelves of my grandmother’s house in New Jersey.  There were vases with Greek warriors locked in combat (and various other postures), worry beads and beautiful hand-embroidered fabrics. My Great Grandfather owned a Greek restaurant in Philadelphia. I enjoy brandishing these facts when people ask about the origin of my last name, Bethanis. So, now that I have proven my unassailable Greekness, let's take a quickie course in archetypes and go Greek for a few minutes.....

The idea of IMAGE (or imago) is so very important in Greek drama.  What we feel when we see, hear or otherwise absorb the things that fill up our lives, leads to the awareness of ARCHETYPES. For example, a trip to the zoo may yield many different archetypes: the tiger could be pride, the dappled fawn, innocence.  Greek drama is the MOTHERLOAD of archetypes.  Mythological characters actually provide this function for us and can be applied to all areas of our lives.

Medea offers her children to Jason

MEDEA is a woman with problems.  She lost her boyfriend Jason, father of her two children, to the princess Glauke, daughter of the King of Corinth. So, as far as we can tell, MEDEA is scorn; scorn that’s as bold and big-as-you-please. She’s smart, too.  She’s got an entire plan worked out on how to exact vengeance on just about everybody, even if it means killing her own two children (Greek Tragedy takes everything a bit too far, but that’s how one gets to be an archetype, officially).

Udovicki uses the 1994 Rapael/McLeish translation of the play, which brings the style of speech to a more human level.  Instead of using high rage and deep pain in highly structured verse, the actors are supported by lines that allow breathability to the action and occasional moments of humor.  The play was easy to follow and yet still retained the archetypal depth, which is the soul of Greek drama.  

Annette Bening is Medea

Annette Bening stirs up the sandbox as MEDEA .  Bening was intense, postured and utterly believable.  Her movement on the stage was exacting. There was a wonderful, subtle conflict between her body and voice. The large-scale, controlled sweeping motion of her arms (indicating deeper archetypal ideas) was simultaneously contrasted by her intimate vocal delivery of powerful monologues. Interestingly, her close-cropped hairstyle added a visual strength not often associated with MEDEA; generally seen with wild curly tresses evoking a serious path-to-revenge quality.  Bening’s MEDEA was organic: we knew she was a mother, that she was smarter than the men, and that she’d reached the tipping point with betrayel.

Jason, performed by Angus Macfadyen, played well off of Bening’s calculations.  He brought a quality of hybrid to the role: an unexpected maturity that belied the youthful golden fleece retriever, and goodly man making the best of it not knowing he’s out-smarted. Occasionally traces of Macfadyen’s Scottish accent came through.  Also  I was vaguely reminded of a good-ole-boy persona as somehow reinvented through Mythological cross-breeding (think actor Jack Black as a Greek hero trying to resolve his mess between two women). MacFadyen was fierce at times, and this created a strength and breadth to his otherwise solid performance.

Medea is scorn

The set design was generally startling upon first sight. Utilitarian images presented a lonely dioramic view of the unconscious: power was high and elusive (the electricity pole atop and behind the city walls), exclusion was pervasive (the entire stage was desolate, barren sand, with one gate to the kingdom available only for corpses) and the mind’s eye, or witness was a traveling swarm of elfin chorus girls echoing the drama in song. Yet the tone was very intimate, with the Persian music-makers at far stage left and sand that, when stirred by the actors, created clouds reaching beyond the stage. The Corinthian Woman/Old Chrone expertly played by Mary Lou Rosato ushered in the play with house lights still on, and brought the audience up to speed on what went down between MEDEA and Jason before the action began.

My wheedles would be: certain sound effects were a bit too rough and distracting, and I could not hear many of the words spoken by the chorus. And I do have one fanciful suggestion: consider the deeper juxtaposition of gender archetypes by having the chorus consist of young men, instead of young women; I was thinking of how interesting that dynamic would be as MEDEA murders her two boys; this, in the face of the very fiercely female perspective of this production.  

Medea and the Chorus

A fun evening would be to have dinner with friends and discuss  archetypal forces at play in your life right now.  What’s your latest desire? What’s challenging you? Who’s bothering you? Then go see MEDEA.  Look for all the images that may reflect where you’re at these days.  Look deeper into yourself when you take in a play or a concert and try to observe what emotional current is traveling through you as you absorb it all.  This, I assure, is exactly why these impossibly beautiful Greek tragedies have stayed with us for 25 centuries.  These plays are a tool for us to check in with our deepest soul, as well as have a cool night out on the town. Fabulous!

MEDEA is running at UCLA Live’s Freud Playhouse Sept. 18-Oct. 18. Tickets for all performances of MEDEA are on sale at www.uclalive.org or at the UCLA Central Ticket Office (310-825-2101).

Photos by: Michael Lamont

Wayne Bethanis

Wayne Bethanis hosts his own TV show, The Wayne Bethanis Show. He is a well-known concert pianist and entertainer and holds a Ph.D in  Musicology.

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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