The wail plays like a primitive call to prayer in some undetermined Middle Eastern city. The sound is low, primal, an almost guttural cry -- and it takes a moment to realize that the noise is actually human, that it's emanating from a corner of the womb-like rehearsal room deep in the bowels of UCLA's Royce Hall. The source is unexpected -- a faceless woman slung up against a wall, a scarlet scarf covering her head.
When the woman takes the stage, she is no longer crying but almost anesthetized -- blinded -- by pain. This is Annette Bening as Euripides' Medea, the jilted spouse of Greek hero Jason. Her hair is shorn; her fine, almost delicate features are distorted by the absurdity of her plight. The cool intelligence beats fiercely as it tries to comprehend the new reality: "My lovely life is lost. I want to die," she says plainly.
Around her, pretty young women in leotards and T-shirts -- the chorus of Corinthian women -- vibrate off her shifting emotions, her seething but lucid argument about the powerlessness of women in Greek society, of the ingrained xenophobia of the Corinthians, of fear of the other. Bening, by theatrical design and force of persona, sucks the energy in the room, like a dangerous vortex.
Of late, the mother of four, wife of Hollywood prince Warren Beatty, has played some notably narcissistic -- deeply flawed -- mothers such as Carolyn Burnham in "American Beauty" and Deirdre Burroughs in "Running With Scissors," and some women driven mad by love, such as the eponymous "Mrs. Harris," headmistress turned murderer of the Scarsdale Diet doctor. Now in a brief spurt of maniacal energy, she will wrestle with both passions playing one of theater's most famous roles at Freud Playhouse for a three-week run as part of UCLA Live's International Theatre Festival. She is the infamous Medea, the immortal witchy granddaughter of the Sun. According to myth, she was so besotted with Jason that she helped him steal the Golden Fleece from her father and later tried to secure a throne for Jason by engineering King Pelias' death. That's all before the curtain goes up.
Euripides' drama starts the moment after Jason has announced his intention to leave Medea and their two sons to marry Glauke, daughter of Corinth's King Kreon, and hence solidify his and his sons' position in Greek society. It ends infamously with Medea's murder of her children, as a way of exacting revenge on her faithless spouse. It sputters to chaos, or as Euripides famously wrote, "Expect the unexpected. What mortals dream, the gods frustrate."
Unresolvable primordial passion does seem part of the appeal of playing Medea for Bening and her partner in crime, Croatian theater director Lenka Udovicki. There's an attraction to the unruly morass that's largely been banished from daily life, a fact that becomes apparent when the pair shows up after a Sunday rehearsal for a drink at a Westwood hotel.
In person, Bening seems like a woman with her head screwed on right. Out of costume, out of the theatrical zone, she is spare and uncluttered, dressed in sleek yoga pants, an oversize white shirt and thin black glasses. The 42-year-old Udovicki, who's making her American debut, is a warm and slightly brooding presence in black overalls and a white peasant shirt. She smokes furtively.
The duo have the air of moms on the lam from workaday responsibilities. They share a bunch of similarities -- like tons of kids (Bening has four, Udovicki has three as well as stepchildren), and what Bening refers to as "very talented, interesting husbands" -- Beatty and the well-known Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija.
The children hang like friendly ghosts over their work, but Bening admits cheerfully that "we're sort of obsessed. The great plays become the vehicle for everything in your life while you're working. When you think about your own life and own family, it all becomes through that prism."
"You live constantly in another reality. It overcomes your normal daily routine," adds Udovicki.
The production was Udovicki's idea after she met Bening at a dinner party. "I was very depressed and thinking about what would really motivate me to work," she says. What was her fantasy? "I would love to do 'Medea' with Annette. The evening we met, it was one of those things that happens: You meet somebody and you feel some deep connection."
Judging from her resume (including two upcoming movies, "The Kids Are All Right" and "Mother and Child"), Bening is clearly intrigued by the dramatic potential of mothers. "Nothing is more loaded than the whole question of motherhood," she says adamantly. "Anybody who is a mother experiences that." Ideal mothers are boring to portray, however. "Mothers that are human, that have frailties and flaws, that's interesting."
Very interesting. "Some of the great stories are about how there's an expectation we all have of mothers, of ourselves as mothers, our own mothers.