UCLA Live / Freud Playhouse
On through 18 October

And now for a bit about Medea, or as I like to refer to it, two hours of watching Annette Bening trying not to trip over a huge dress in a titled sandbox.

On paper it all sounded so wonderful.  One of America’s most beloved actresses playing in a world premiere production of “Medea” at UCLA Live.  In international festival’s eighth outing, Executive and Artistic Director, David Sefton is clearly trying to raise the bar to create a BAM for the west.  But UCLA Live is perhaps more suited to work as a curator of international theatre than as a producer of such.  Admittedly, there is plenty working against the creative staff and the audience at the Freud Playhouse.  It’s a dry campus, so no vino (good thing “August: Osage County” didn’t play there), the house is partially on a reverse rake so viewing anything is no fun, and then there’s the wonderful acoustics which make it so you can hear a man scratch his knee six rows back.

Nonetheless, I went in expecting wonderful things.  For something new and different, director Lenka Udovicki has set this ancient Greek tragedy in a post-apocalyptic desert.  Out comes Medea’s Nurse to get us ready for the lady of the night, who is devastated and angry over her husband hopping into bed with the local princess for political points.  When Medea comes out of the metal shack where she’s been squatting with her children, we see her tempered ferocity unveil itself as she tries (constantly) not to trip of the beautiful but gargantuan frock that costume designer Bjanka Adzic Ursulov has trapped her in.  Then the chorus comes out wearing black (I want to say pleather) and plastic hair masks; it’s as if Lady Gaga designed a line for Target.  

And if the sand and the costumes didn’t make it hard enough for the cast, Udovicki has everyone deliver. their. lines. like. this.  SPIT IT OUT ALREADY!  Considering that Euripides wrote this play in 400-something BCE, it’s extremely simple to comprehend.  But rather than just letting the language do the work, the company sounds like they’re aiming for Shakespeare via Brecht with the occasional (and unnecessary) theatrical slight of hand. All the while being accompanied by a tiny orchestra on-stage which sounds more suited to Morocco than the Mediterranean.

Most theatre-goers know this one.  Medea poisons her husband’s new ladyfriend and then kills the kids.  When this show is done well, it’s an amazing dance that transitions from passion to rage to heartache in the blink of an eye.  This new UCLA Live production has many of the elements at hand, including the remarkable Ms. Bening, but the composite of all these things is a clunky mess.  It’s a whole different kind of tragedy now.