Medea presented by UCLA Live’s International Theatre Festival. Opens Sept. 23; plays Tues.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun. 7 pm; through Oct. 18. Tickets: $80-$110; UCLA students, $20. Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E. Young Drive East, Westwood. 310.825.2101 or online at uclalive.org
Ripped from the headlines of Ancient Greece: War hero dumps wife to marry younger woman of higher station and bigger assets. Claims he is doing it for their two sons. Dismisses the fact his foreign-born spouse famously aided and abetted his adventures around the world. She plots revenge. Good-bye bride-not-to-be. Adios, boys. Mama takes Daddy down by snuffing out his dreams. All three of them.
If Euripides hadn’t written Medea 25 centuries ago, you’d swear it was either a breaking Fox News lead or a Law & Order franchise story line. At a time when mothers drown their kids in cars, governors cheat on their wives with Argentinean mistresses, US forces flex their clout in third world cultures and women are still stoned for dating outside their clan, the 431 BC Greek tragedy remains a shockingly contemporary cautionary tale.
“I think Euripides wrote this play really posing the crucial questions of Western society,” says Lenka Udovicki, making her US directorial debut with UCLA Live’s inaugural world premiere production of Medea starring Annette Bening with Angus Macfadyen as Jason in its 8th International Theatre Festival season opener. Other cast members include Mary Lou Rosato, Daniel Davis, Hugo Armstrong and Joseph Ruskin.
“What does power mean? What is feminine versus masculine power? I think it is so essential for today because we really do live our lives in an eternal clash between our rational and irrational selves. Whether we follow our mind or whether we follow our heart. The struggle between male and female. Women are still fighting to find their voices and be understood. We still live in a male dominated world. Western civilizations still regard themselves as the premier to many other cultures and religions. The resulting clashes and misunderstandings. All those things make this play very contemporary and accurate and needed to be seen, heard and felt.”
All too familiar territory for the now LA-based Croatian theatre and opera director, whose production of Mother Courage was ironically touring Bosnia when the Balkan War broke out in 1992. Two years later, she co-founded and was artistic director for London’s Moving Theatre Company alongside Vanessa Redgrave and Colin Redgrave among others. In 2001, she co-founded (and is associate artistic director of) the Ulysses Theatre Company with husband actor Rade Serbedzija and writer Borislav Vujcic, which began as a summer festival on the Island of Brijuni in Croatia.
Some of Udovicki’s most notable productions include Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Globe Theatre in London, starring Vanessa Redgrave as Prospero and Jasper Britton as Caliban; Core Sample, a site-specific piece based on Waiting for Godot and the accounts of survivors from Yugoslavia’s island prison of Goli Otok, with Lynn Redgrave, Vanessa Redgrave and Amanda Plummer; and King Lear with Rade Serbedzija for Ulysses Theatre.Â Her opera work includes Differences in Demolition, a world premiere chamber opera by British composer Nigel Osborne dealing with the Balkan War produced by Opera Circus.
Udovicki has recruited Osborne and a stellar group of international artists for her second outing with Medea including Mladen Vasari (choreography), Bjanka Adzic Ursulov (costumes), Richard Hoover (scenic design) and Lap Chi Chu (lighting design).
“You do go through life and you build up a certain team,” she explains. “It’s not always easy to find the people that understand you. The creative process is also a painful process. You really need to trust the people you work with and they trust you. That was also a wonderful thing. I’ve met new colleagues. I really feel like I’ve extended my theatrical family to Los Angeles.”
Udovicki’s new family also includes the LA-based Liam Ensemble who will be performing on stage with the actors and a 12-person Greek chorus comprised of CalArts and UCLA students.
“They’re wonderful musicians,” she enthuses. “They bring a thousands of years old tradition of Persian music, which probably we all have somewhere in our genetic code one way or the other!” she laughs. “They kind of explore elements of Sufi and other mystic traditions. Most of my productions have live music. I really believe very strongly in the power of live musicians on stage. ”
Greek plays were traditionally a complete synthesis of dance, music and drama with the chorus at the center. According to Udovicki, this theatrical soup, along with the play’s mythic dimensions, is what attracted her to Medea in the first place.
“You really need a combination of all the arts to tell the story – through music, through movement, through different rhythms of speaking,” she admits. “There are secret codes in the Greek prosody in which some chorus sections have been written and those are all very important elements. The energy is really created using all these things. It’s a different level than daily life. It’s not a kitchen drama. There is something grand in it. There is something complex. Really all art forms are applied.”
A Dinner and a Friendship
How Medea came to be UCLA Live’s inaugural leap from presenter to performer is really a tale of synchronicity and shared sensibilities. Udovicki met Bening socially at a dinner a few years ago and the two instantly felt a mutual connection. A second meeting led naturally to a “let’s do something together” conversation and the suggestion of Medea from Udovicki. She is still a little stunned that Bening said yes.
“I think she was almost mad to accept since she really did not see any of my productions,” Udovicki confesses. “I mean I did show some video clips I had of some of my previous shows in Croatian! I don’t know if I would, in her place, just go throw myself into really one of the most complex roles for women ever written. Some people say it’s the King Lear of female parts,” she laughs. “It’s so intense because it begins already where Medea’s been hurt. She’s been wailing for three days, cursing. It’s not something that starts on point zero and then slowly develops. Annette was brave and trusting to try something like that with me.”
With Bening on board, Udovicki approached UCLA Live’s Executive and Artistic Director David Sefton for suggestions on where to take the project. She had first discovered its annual programming of theater, music, dance and spoken word after relocating to LA three years ago for her husband’s television and film work. Udovicki frankly admits its programs “kept my sanity here,” and offered the international director a connection to what was happening in performing arts around the world. One day she met Sefton and the two quickly became friends and family.
“David is a real connoisseur,” she explains. “For a couple of years, we were just friends enjoying our conversations and exchanging experiences. What he had seen around the world. What I had seen. We both believe LA has so much talent and not such a rich theatrical life but that there is a potential. I went to him as a friend when Annette said yes and asked, where do you think I should take this project? I have not worked professionally in the United States before and I really want to find a place that would produce the piece in a way that would allow me to explore theatre the way I like to do it–to take a risk and go for something challenging. Since UCLA Live was just presenting, I never really thought about them producing something.”
Sefton told her that in fact they had been thinking of taking a step forward as producers and this was the piece he would like to do. “So that’s how it all started a year ago,” notes Udovicki. “It was a lot of work to put it all together. They are wonderful at presenting things but producing from step one to opening night is a whole different process. Everybody was for it and stayed very engaged.”
The production also had a shared collaborative partner in CalArts where Udovicki had served as guest director for a 2007 theatre school production of Hamlet. She returned to campus last spring to lead a two-week workshop exploring the Greek chorus with CalArts and UCLA theatre school students participating. From the group, she picked 12 to be in the UCLA Live production. Other CalArts connected participants hired for Medea include faculty members Mary Lou Rosato (Nurse) and Lap Chi Chu as well as alumni Dan Freidman (associate producer) and Maureen Huskey (assistant director.)
Udovicki shared workshop teaching duties with a movement director from Europe who specializes in neutral mask, composer Osborne as well as Bening. “Annette was really such a wonderful sport,” admits Udovicki. “She was so open and so ready to try everything. It takes a lot of courage and self-confidence to throw yourself on the floor with a bunch of students. OK, let’s see what we can come up with. For me, that kind of exploration is what I treasure in the theatre.”
Udovicki also treasured the rare opportunity of both time and body count to explore the chorus when five person plays are often the fiscal maximum most theatres can afford. “We really did have some time to play around with what would be the level of theatrical space that the chorus occupies,” she admits. “What is its theatrical reality? Do they have psychology or not psychology? What does it mean being on stage all the time and how it is for the neutral mask, which is where the whole body is a face. They say the chorus is a judge but I would say more like a jury that has to be stripped of perspective in order to react to what’s happening in that very moment on stage. They also act as the inner voices of the character. We have many selves in ourselves. Even when we look peaceful and quiet, things are happening inside. Having the chorus gives us the opportunity to visualize and expand the inner life and energy on stage.”
That early spring workshop gave Udovicki permission to concentrate on her main characters when rehearsals finally began since it had allowed her to previously define the vocabulary and staging for the chorus. She was free to work with the 1994 Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael translation she says Macfadyen found extremely potent.
“I was very inspired by this translation,” emphasizes Udovicki. “It’s very clear, strong and precise plus really well written for contemporary actors. I remember when I sent it to Angus for the first time to play Jason. Almost immediately I got this email back saying, ‘The words are so powerful. They are screaming to be told.’ So yes, I think it’s brilliant. It’s very helpful in bringing it all into today’s world.”
As compelling as Jason is for Macfadyen, Medea is even more brutally demanding of its inhabitant. She is onstage for nearly the entire duration of the play. Known for her scholarly dedication and emotional immersion into her roles, Bening is diving deep into the depths of Euripides’ Barbarian priestess, admires Udovicki. “She really goes for it. Annette’s an incredibly intelligent and smart woman. It’s really such a joy to have somebody that inspires you in that way and helps you. Someone who has both the intelligence and the emotional capacity to deal with something like this.”
When asked about other Medeas she has seen, Udovicki admits that each one offers stunning moments. “I’ve seen Diana Rigg and Fiona Shaw. They’re both great actresses and were wonderful in their own way. Each Medea is really different. The role is so deep and complex that it’s difficult to compare. You can have so many interpretations and all of them really valuable.”
Modern Day Medeas
To Udovicki, Medea’s horrific actions are not unlike those of current day people or countries who lash out with violence when they believe themselves to been publicly humiliated, betrayed by something/someone they trusted or cornered by circumstances beyond their control.
“It’s a very frightening play because we see a woman who has been stripped of all her powers. Her husband is leaving her. The king is banishing her. She’s dead to everyone. So she turns to the other powers she has. She actually decides she is surrounded by evil. She says, evil, evil on every side. If that’s the case, than evil be our good and I its queen.
“I believe in the Barbarian world where she came from, she was probably a priestess and had beautiful healing powers for good. Having been plucked from there long ago and dropped into this other world under these circumstances, she turns those powers into dark ones. Which is what happens to so many of us when we are traumatized in difficult situations and see no way out. The powers we possess that we could use for good, we start using them for evil.”
Some scholars believe Jason represents the Athenian ideal of Greek manhood who values male intellect and gets punished for denying the intuitive feminine self represented by the Barbarian Medea. If you suppress the feminine, the masculine will eventually destroy you. When Athens came to power, it took pride in mathematical thinking and devalued the earthly world previously governed by what it now perceived as irrational women.
“At the time Euripides wrote this play, Athens was at its peak,” notes Udovicki. “Democracy, this new fantastic society, was invented in which everybody had rights and justice but it was only for men. Women were actually stripped of their powers. They were suddenly put behind doors. They couldn’t vote. They were now in a male dominated society. Not long before that, it was a more matriarchal culture in which a woman, being able to give birth, was regarded as a semi-goddess endowed with divine powers. Women were in charge of birth rites and wedding ceremonies and burial rites. That was the center of life in the society and the family.
“Suddenly, all that was put aside. The priestesses were put in the temples and laws were introduced to control and reduce the wailing at the burial rites because it would stir too much emotion. And we don’t want too much emotion. We want to glorify when the soldier dies. We want to glorify the sacrifice to the state and heroism. We don’t want to think how painful it is for the mothers and the brothers and sisters and children. What has changed when you think about how many images of killed soldiers do we get today? Always in the background they are hidden. We look at what is in the interest of the state and the prosperity of the state and that’s what put in first place.”
Does coming from a war torn country near the Black Sea where scholars believe the original Medea may have originated give Udovicki a unique insight into the story?
“I don’t think it really matters that much,” she reflects. “Yes, I’m from the Balkans. There are certain elements: the music, influences of the Greeks and the east. It’s also a place where two worlds meet and pass, the east and the west. A turbulent place with so many wars. It is the things you witness in war and how they influence your life. What the falling apart of a certain society brings out in people or what families go through. I left my country in the 90s and for a while we were like refugees; having to start our life from the beginning and then going back to try to build bridges and connect people. All those things enrich you and you learn from it.
“But it’s not something that entitles me more than anybody else. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that someone from some region is more entitled to something. No. It is sensitivity and life experience.”
Photos by Michael Lamont