Tragedies: Medea and Modine

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Two great tragedies are currently running in Westwood. One dates back 2,500 years; the other feels twice as old (and dated) even though it was written earlier this year.

The first is Euripides’ Medea. In Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael’s translation, the ancient Greek myth of Medea (husband trades in wife and mother for a younger, wealthier model…things get ugly) feels as if it was written yesterday.

Sadly, Lenka Udovicki’s production lacks the timeless of the story. She covers the Freud Playhouse stage with sand. What looks like the Israeli-West Bank barrier looms over everything as Middle Eastern music wafts from an avant-garde quartet stage left. The live band combined with the capable acting of the ensemble makes Udovicki’s production difficult to dismiss. This is UCLA Live’s first foray into producing and the caliber of the artists gathered, plus the professionalism of the staging rivals what you might find at festivals in London or Vienna.

medea137.jpgThe problem is: despite its first-class components, the experience as a whole is dramatically underwhelming. Udovicki’s staging is easy to chuckle at: it features a choir of women in rubber suits and red bustiers that look like fan girls dressed up as their favorite Japanese Manga character. King Kreon and his aides are dressed like Jedi warriors and Medea — despite wearing Vivienne Westwood-esque gowns — appears to live in a tin shack.

As goofy as all this sounds (and looks on stage) Udovicki’s gimmicks are a harmless sideshow — Euripides' text is rarely undermined by the director. It’s just that the depths of the play are un-mined by the performers. Angus Macfadyen’s schlubby Jason is interesting and Daniel Davis is a nice bit of luxury casting as Kreon, but the lack of drama at the core of this production is the Medea of Annette Bening.

medea446.jpgMs. Bening’s performance seems dedicated to not letting Medea become a hysterical woman. She clearly wants to let the stillness in Medea’s voice and gestures speak louder than frenzied screams or histronics. This is not bad choice, but Bening and Udovicki have not solved how to radiate Medea’s inner turmoil through such a cool exterior. The result is a Medea who seems neither unhinged and insane — nor perfectly sane and just fed up with the injustice around her. The beauty of Fiona Shaw’s Medea (seen in London and New York earlier this decade) was that she conveyed both these conflicting sentiments — and seemingly every other emotion in between.

Bening’s Medea, like her Ranyevskaya at the Taper and her Hedda at the Geffen, looks striking but comes off as flat, aloof and disinterested. With her commanding stage presence, rich voice and training at A.C.T., Bening would seem to be natural on the stage; yet she is now zero-for-three playing leading ladies in classic dramas here in LA. In a few months, Bening will be starring in a new play, rather than an established masterpiece, at the Geffen. We’ll see.

modine110.jpgSpeaking of the Geffen, now we turn to the other tragedy playing in Westwood: Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas. Blair Singer’s tired, behind-the-curve “satire” of celebrity is the theatrical equivalent of US Weekly. On second thought, this description demeans that magazine which is put together by intelligent professionals who at least are aware that they’re just churning out product — and entertain no illusions that they’re making art. The creative team of Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas seems to be under the delusion that they’re not peddling the same vapid crap their “play” is trying to make fun of. Pity Matthew Modine who stars — nothing is as tragic in the theater as watching an actor incapable of playing himself.

Matthew Modine Saves the Alpacas at the Geffen Playhouse and UCLA Live’s Medea both run through October 18.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

Images: Michael Lamont