Los Angeles Theater Reviews – Medea with Annette Bening and
TAKE YOUR PICK: MEDEA OR ECLIPSED?
by Harvey Perr
published October 9, 2009
now playing in Los Angeles at the Freud Playhouse
through October 18
now playing in Los Angeles at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
through October 18
Since 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
Beware 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.
As 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
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.
This 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
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com
Medea photos by Michael Lamont
Eclipsed photos by Craig Schwartz