Adapted by Robinson Jeffers; Directed by Heidi Helen Davis
Theatricum Botanicum, Los Angeles, California, August-October, 2001
Reviewed by Carl R. Mueller
One leaves the bustle of Los Angeles, heads west on Sunset Boulevard toward a gleaming Pacific Ocean, turns right onto Pacific Coast Highway and heads north to Topanga Canyon, one of the major routes leading from the beach to the vast plains of the San Fernando Valley. That turn into Topanga Canyon, unless one is prepared, is a culture shock of no small dimension. As the winding road heads steadily uphill into the mountains, the terrain grows more and more wild, rugged, and finally downright primitive. Gigantic extrusions of rock rise up to meet the traveler at every curve, mist hovers ominously in hidden side valleys so intricately configured that the mind fairly reels with the experience. About 20 minutes into the canyon there appear signs of rural habitation. It is scarcely a route one would associate with a visit to the theater, and yet that's precisely what it is. Can it have been much different for the ancient Greek making his way up to the intimate theater of Segesta in Sicily or to any other of the ancient Hellenic or Hellenistic theaters built into hillsides high or low? Except for modern conveniences of travel, it probably wasn't. The trip, with its hovering mists, was strangely reminiscent of a winter journey from the flat plains of Boiotia up to Delphi and its theater clinging to the side of Mount Parnassos.
The Theatricum Botanicum of Topanga Canyon is also an outdoor theater somewhat in the Greek manner. Rather than being situated on a mountainside at a high elevation looking out over a dazzling prospect of mountain, sea and sky, it is nestled quaintly in a small pocket of land where the mountainside rises steeply at the rear of the three foot high, proscenium-less wooden stage, with the 299 seat wooden-bench amphitheater rising opposite. Perhaps not too different from many a rural, outlying theater of fifth century B.C. Greece or its colonies. Theatricum Botanicum is a delightful and utterly unpretentious place where one generally finds a welcome alternative to the commercial theater of Los Angeles. The seats may be an endurance, but so must have been the seats of the wooden bleachers built into the south side of the Akropolis for the Theater of Dionysos in Athens in its earliest manifestation, and rebuilt yearly from roughly 500 to 330 B.C., when the theatron was finally constructed of marble. The Botanicum's audience is encouraged to bring pillows for comfort's sake, and can one construe that the classical Athenian did less, whether for wood or marble?
No question, the Theatricum Botanicum is a small, and much-loved, treasure in sprawling Los Angeles, that city without an identifiable center. And the Botanicum's annual summer season of four plays can be counted on to offer up a good, and at times a distinguished, product. It is therefore not pleasant to report an utter failure in regard to its recent production of Euripides' Medea in the Robinson Jeffers adaptation. So painful was the experience that on the surface it may appear unnecessarily cruel even to write a review. And yet, even the worst theater production can offer cautions of what not to do.
First of all, the Botanicum is an ideal venue for the production of Greek Tragedy or Comedy: its rugged outdoor venue is unencumbered with the accretions of civilization. It's much like standing in the vomitorium of the small Roman theater in Fiesole in the hills above Florence. Stand in just the right place in that stone cavern and every trace of the present disappears. The Botanicum offers something if not all of that experience in its rustic, tucked-away honesty. Why, then, encumber the low wooden stage of that splendid and potentially magical space with a set that tries half-heartedly to be realistic, but in reality looks like a cross between a bad Disney animation imitation and an uninspired kindergarten Christmas "pageant"?
Stage left stood the two-storey house of Medea and Jason, with a staircase descending stage right. Its crudely and garishly painted decoration bore no relation to anything classical ever seen. Admittedly, buildings (even marble) were indeed painted (as were statues) in Greek classical times, but why a set designer would paint a royal palace in a manner more congruent with an Aristophanic romp than with a tragedy is a mystery. (Where is Serlio when we need him?) One spent most of the time looking in shock at the structure, trying to figure out what may have been in the designer's mind. Stage center was a module (perhaps a rock?) that served for various characters to throw themselves onto in the course of the performance. Upstage right stood another module, a sort of bench wrapped halfway around a magnificent tree rising wonderfully out of the stage platform. Then, downstage right and abutting interestingly into the seating area, was a one-storey platform (the entrance to the theater beneath it) on the top of which sat two musicians who played throughout-an inspired decision, given the fact that music was a large part of the production of Greek Tragedy in classical times.
The question is, I suppose, why? Why the garish design, and why the unnecessary, and utterly failed, attempt at realism when something much simpler would have served the enterprise more effectively? A skene, or even a part of a skene (with however many doors), intruding from offstage - simple and unobtrusive in its design - would have served honorably. I must admit that I saw an afternoon as opposed to an evening performance, and no theater set seen without the transformative artifice of theatrical lighting is going to be anything but awful. But it's difficult to imagine any "magical" transformation being achieved by the evening performance's lights.
If possible, the costumes were even more disastrous. Except for the textured costume of Medea, a true dress (not historically accurate perhaps, but apt), the rest of the cast was "covered" with bed sheets in a variety of garish colors: bright green, bright yellow, pink, etc., not what a thinking designer would postulate for a Greek Tragedy. Simply put, there was no attempt at "design," no coordination of colors and textures of different fabrics. It was fairly obvious that the actors, male especially, were embarrassed by their appearance. Only one fortunate young man, a non-speaking slave-attendant of Jason, was spared. He entered several times bare-footed, bare-legged, and bare-chested, wearing a simple wrap around his waist. One was grateful for small favors. The solution to this travesty? A little bit of daring and ingenuity. Perhaps modern dress, or, better, some approximation of it, mixing and matching. Not that this is an easy solution. It isn't. But it can be rewarding.
The acting was no better than the set or costumes, even despite the professional actors among the cast, in particular Ellen Geer, a splendid and highly accomplished actress whose professional credits include, among many others, leading roles at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. She is also a dedicated acting teacher, and many of her roles at the Botanicum (Amanda in Glass Menagerie stands out) have been memorable. Unfortunately, one must assume, she followed direction. This must be assumed because every actor on stage was afflicted similarly. To be direct, every word, every line, every speech, every action was unrelievedly "tragic." From the Nurse's first entrance speech, laying out the exposition of Medea's past, her barbarian origins, and her subsequent fall from favor with Jason, the audience was set upon by ranting, screaming, lurching and tears. And sure enough, the children's Tutor, the play's second entrance, continued in the same mode. This opening prologue-speech delivered by the Nurse is meant to be reflective, tempered, concerned, thoughtful, and if it is mutedly delivered it will be an effective premonition of ominous events to come.
In the Medea-Kreon scene, Medea not only rants and rails, but throws herself at Kreon, prostrates herself screaming and flailing at his feet. Where is the character Euripides wrote in all of this football stadium theatrics? Medea is no fool. Medea knows what works and what doesn't. She is not known for laying her full hand of cards on the table, but guards them, holds them close, holds everything she is in reserve. The Nurse describes her in her opening speech as somber, brooding, seldom raising her eyes from the floor-a far cry from the heart-on-the-sleeve performance seen here. Medea is wily, she is cagey, she holds it in, and it is that holding-in that stores up such fury that it all but tears her apart. Most important, Medea is a character who never loses control, she is always thinking, she is methodical, she plans, she is clever, so clever that her deceit never shows. Not even in her central speech in the play (delivered to the women of the Chorus shortly after her first entrance), does she reveal herself. That speech is packed full with rage, but only a modicum of it must be visible to her neighbor women and to the audience. In this production, the speech was scenery-chewing in its extraversion, and consequently it was painfully ludicrous, it spent all of its energy and there was nowhere to go from there. The more betrayed Medea is as a character, the more organized her already highly organized nature becomes. We see her thinking on her feet. Reason and rationality are her strong points. But reason and rationality in the planning of destruction don't betray themselves to others, especially if their aim is diabolical. Medea is as cold a calculator as any character in the entirety of Greek Tragedy, and perhaps in world theater. (But how often is she played that way? No, Greek Tragedy is synonymous with histrionics.) When Medea plans her children's murder she does so with the coldest calculation. This is not the Medea of this production who pours out everything, at full volume, for all to see.
It would be counter productive to deal with each of the performances at this length. Let it simply be said that every character (except for the silent slave-attendant) was guilty of disastrously overacting. But in the theater, it is the director who takes the punches, and that's the way it should be. This director (for all her listed experience) knew nothing about Greek Tragedy and did nothing to learn. She directs with a sledgehammer-the louder and more violent the better. The subtext of Medea is profound. In this production it was non-existent. It's unfortunate that her actors followed what she did, or perhaps did not, give them.
In all, the experience of this Medea at the Theatricum Botanicum was not what was expected, and one looks forward to more rewarding afternoons or evenings in the future at this gem of a rural theater.Prof. Carl R. Mueller