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Annette Bening gives a game and determined performance in the title role of this badly oversized production of Euripides' tragic drama. logo
Annette Bening in Medea
(© Michael Lamont)
As the mother of all murderous revenge stories, Euripides' Medea has often stood as a cautionary tale for arrogant, power-hungry husbands who try to subjugate their independently-minded wives. In this world premiere production of Medea (newly translated by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael), now at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, the plight of the strong-willed Medea (gamely played by Annette Bening) is more sympathetically presented and her blindly furious retaliation, though unforgivable, becomes understandable.

Unfortunately, Lenka Udovicki's operatically-sized production significantly dwarfs both the performers and the material. Indeed, it's hard to appreciate any of the performances -- especially those of the mightily determined Bening and the spirited Angus Macfadyen as her husband, Jason -- due in part to the challenges inherent in Richard Hoover's expansive scenic design.

While the Playhouse is a great space for big musicals, it is way too big for this sort of drama. Making matters worse, Hoover has created a sand-covered netherworld that's dominated by a long row of concrete pillars several stories tall. Behind them, a huge overhead power line -- complete with transformer -- crowns the desolate landscape dotted by a functional water pipe, a rocking horse and other playthings, and a small flat wagon sitting ominously still in the middle of the sand.

While the set is stunning to look at, two problems quickly become apparent. First, the pliable nature of the sand forces Bening and Macfadyen to work extremely hard. The metaphoric imagery of being on unstable ground is wonderful, but eventually it begins to compromise the storytelling. And watching the pair having to drag costume designer Bjanka Adzic Ursulov's long trailing skirts and cloaks behind them -- and constantly pick them up, fling them down, or shake the sand out -- wears thin after awhile.

Also, presumably because of the problems posed by sand and water, hanging mics are used, and it becomes difficult to hear dialogue when the onstage music is playing or the 12-member female chorus is chanting. Indeed, watching the show ultimately becomes an exercise in laser-like focused attention -- which leaves no room for emotional involvement.

Moreover, whether the fault of direction, translation, or sound design, Medea's relationship to minor characters such as the Tutor (Joseph Ruskin) or the Corinthian Woman (Mary Lou Rosato) are unclear. In addition, Lap-Chi Chu's lighting, while gloriously bold and dramatic, also left some actors in the shadows. Nonetheless, some of the cast come off well: Hugo Armstrong is particularly memorable in his short scene as Aigeus, King of Athens, the crippled ruler who offers Medea a possible escape from her banishment from the land by King Kreon of Corinth (strongly played by Daniel Davis).

Overall, however, the grand production elements are allowed to trump acting prowess and storytelling, leading to a very uneven theatrical experience.

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