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Los Angeles Theater Reviews – Medea with Annette Bening and Eclipsed

  

TAKE YOUR PICK: MEDEA OR ECLIPSED?

 

Theater Reviews

by Harvey Perr

published October 9, 2009

 

Medea

now playing in Los Angeles at the Freud Playhouse

through October 18

 

AND

 

Eclipsed

now playing in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

through October 18

 

picture - MedeaSince Medea and Eclipsed are both scheduled to close by October 18, the question is this: Should one rush out to see them before they are part of Los Angeles history? A singular response: if you can find nothing else to do in the greater Los Angeles area in the next week or so, you could do worse. Neither will excite your imagination and neither will destroy your faith in the possibilities of theater.

 

That said, let us take on Medea first. Euripedes’ great drama of passion and revenge, in a translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael that chooses clarity over poetry, opens in a Corinth that looks suspiciously like an abandoned pier in Santa Monica, covered with sand that no doubt was transferred grain by grain from just such a place. On the beach, a caterwauling nurse (who, in this version, has been turned into a homeless person) runs back and forth, banging on walls, in a theatrical effort to give us the background to the story (without it sounding like exposition, which, of course, it is) of what has brought Medea to such hand-wringing despair over losing her beloved Jason, the father of her two angelic sons, to Kreon’s daughter (a reward for Jason’s heroic battle to win the Golden Fleece). The nurse occasionally stops to take off her shoes and rub her feet, in an apparent nod to Samuel Beckett’s wandering hoboes. 

 

picture - MedeaBeware Greeks bearing gifts, but doubly beware a Greek dressed as a Prussian officer, since Kreon has become a crypto-Nazi in this proto-feminist version of the play, and, indeed, he appears next in order to banish Medea from her rusty lean-to on the beach’s edge. He is then followed by the Greek chorus who, this time around, have been turned into a band of leather-outfitted lesbians with helmets of sculpted blue-black hair and equipped with flaming red bras under their trim little leather jackets. There would seem to be no more reason for their costumes than the fact that the gothic makes for a fancy fashion statement these days. So, in the first ten minutes, we get a full onslaught of what one might politely call the fresh-fangled directorial approach of Lenka Udovicki: a Beckettian banshee, a stage full of sand, a Hitlerian Kreon, and dykes without bikes.

 

Who knows? It might have worked if Medea herself came out raging against the dying of the blight. But, instead, out comes Annette Bening, looking ravishingly beautiful, speaking in the most casual manner, as if there was nothing on her mind but what a lovely beach she has been stranded on.  In totally colloquial cadences, this Medea turns classic Greek tragedy into domestic drama. Reduced to a squabble, the relationship between Medea and Jason would seem to argue the point that Jason is just another lout trying to keep his woman down. Under the circumstances, you can’t blame Medea for getting pissed off. What woman wouldn’t? The fact that this woman is going to get her revenge against her man by murdering their children is hardly hinted at.  We do not attend to Medea’s anguish here; we attend to the way the train of Ms. Bening’s gown drapes as she swirls into Sargent-like poses.

 

Telephone wires crackle. A burning bier emerges on a trolley from a fiery furnace. The walls of Corinth do everything but come tumbling down.  Stunning images, one might say, but stunning imagery is no substitute for human drama. So, this Medea is something to see, but not because it comes anywhere near the Medea which has survived for so long and will clearly survive this spectacularly misguided interpretation.

 

picture - EclipsedAs for Eclipsed, if good intentions were all, it would win hands-down any prize given in the theater for the illusion of noble purpose. Danai Gurira’s very serious work – spiced with comic contemporary references – is about five Liberian women locked in a tumultuous embrace in the midst of civil war. Three are sexual slaves to the ruling army. One has removed herself from slavery by recruiting others to help fight the war and who, as a result of her work, is slave only to those in the higher echelons. The fifth woman is on a pilgrimage to insure peace and to free women from any kind of enslavement and, specifically, to find the daughter who has been lost to her.

 

The looting of African villages, the spoils of war, the empowerment of women: these are all heady themes for any play. It is no wonder, then, that Ms. Gurira, who writes with sensitivity and intelligence and genuine wit, keeps shifting her style from scene to scene, losing ground here, gaining ground there. What Ms. Gurira doesn’t do, given the moral and political complexity she has attempted to put into one sustained piece, is to avoid the perils of packing too much into it. It leads to predictability where there should be ambiguity, convenience where subtlety would be the wiser choice, and, because moral triumph is the natural feeling that such a play should arouse in an audience, Ms. Gurira chooses instead a lady-or-the-tiger ending.  Instead of gaining power, as it must, it is seriously weakened by its climax. It is one thing to be torn between two difficult decisions and another thing to turn divisiveness into cliché.

 

picture - EclipsedThis is not meant in any way to diminish the achievement of its five hard-working actors – especially the performance of Edwina Findley as the most intellectually and emotionally ambivalent of the women – or Robert O’Hara’s skillful direction or the evocative jungle atmosphere created by Sibyl Wickersheimer’s sets and Christopher Kuhl’s delicate lighting. It is just that, for all the hot-blooded intensity that has informed the creation of this play, it remains cool and somewhat distant in the theater.

 

Two plays of passion, and yet the single element missing from both productions is, peculiarly enough, genuine passion. 

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

Medea photos by Michael Lamont

 

Eclipsed photos by Craig Schwartz

 

 

 
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