Scheming seductress, scorned wife, vengeful lover: The tragic figure of Medea carries all the worst labels applied to women but can't be contained by any of them. Dutch ensemble Dood Paard's cerebral, sly telling of her fierce and bloody tale plays through the weekend at Macgowan Little Theater as part of UCLA's International Theatre Festival. Written and performed by Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker, "medEia" is a minimalist choreo-poem cum iPod shuffle, incorporating both Euripides and lyrics from Pat Benatar and the Beatles.
In Euripides' version of the myth, the barbarian sorceress Medea encounters the Greek hero Jason as he roams the Mediterranean in search of the Golden Fleece. They fall instantly and deeply in love, and Medea uses her magic to help Jason obtain his prize. They have two sons. While in Corinth, however, Jason decides to marry the king's young daughter. Medea, devastated, kills the king and his daughter, then commits an unthinkable act with which her name is forever associated.
Like fellow rage-filled divas Clytemnestra, Lady Macbeth and Hedda Gabler, Medea gets under your skin and stays there. A crash site of conflicting drives, she possesses both passionate vulnerability and a serial killer's strategic cool. She unsettles us because her humanity feels too close to her monstrosity -- living proof that our truest feelings could become our most destructive.
Recent memorable productions of the play have walked straight into Medea's dark heart by way of stunning titular performances (Diana Rigg and Fiona Shaw on Broadway in 1994 and 2002, respectively). Shaw's deliberate stride on her way to slaughter raised the hair on the back of a thousand theatergoing necks every night.
Dood Paard takes an entirely different approach. If most "Medea's" give us tainted love in extreme close-up, this theater company is all about the distance. Their perspective is that of a classic Greek chorus, anguished at being unable to stop the blood bath from happening, yet faintly mesmerized by its violent glamour. The colloquial script slips in and out of pop songs ("Love is all you need," "Like a virgin," "Love is a battlefield"), bringing further irony to Medea's outsized myth.
The three actors, wearing street clothes and red toenail polish, stand in front of a series of paper curtains and take on various roles -- Medea, her maidservant, Jason. At certain intervals they tear down one curtain and raise another one, moving closer to the audience as the evening goes on. But don't wait for a coup de théâtre; this is drama as blog or gossip, intentionally low-key and conversational.
"MedEia" is the response of artists at a remove from tragedies domestic and global, dulled by the very story that is meant to excite them, a sort of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" for the age of Laci Peterson and Abu Ghraib. These wry, affable performers have chosen one of Western theater's most incendiary stories to express a sense of being helpless to affect incendiary events taking place across the planet. An intriguing conceit, yet the results feel reflective rather than wrenching.
At intervals in the show, Dood Paard projects a series of photographs taken from around the world: crumbling stone temples, urban playgrounds, cows in fields. I was reminded of the awkward truth that little feels as remote as other people's travel slides. One doesn't begrudge them their great trip, yet the images can never really communicate to anyone else the essence of the traveler's adventure. So too with Dood Paard's aptly named "medEia" -- it's finally a slide show of someone else's far flung disaster. There is pathos in that idea, but not much theatricality.
Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA, Westwood
When: 8 p.m. today through
Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes