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Theater Review: Phaedra

By Bence Olveczky
staff reporter

American Repertory Theatre.

64 Brattle Street, Cambridge


January 14, 8 P.M.

$2355, student discount available

There is something strange and disturbing about Greek men; the ancient mythical ones I should hasten to add. Many of these seemingly heroic figures have a bizarre fancy for their mothers or vice versa. First it was Sophocles' Oedipus who longed for maternal love in a far too literal sense, then Euripides turned things around by authoring the story of Phaedra, a Queen consumed by passion for her own stepson, Hippolytus.

It was the tragic heroine's destiny in the latter of these incestuous affairs that served as substrate for 17th century French playwright Jean Racine's "Phaedra," now revived in a compelling production by The American Repertory Theatre.

During his life Racine was torn between sensual pleasures and monastic virtues. He used Euripides' drama, about a tormented Queen hopelessly in love with her stepson, to portray the contradictions we encounter when our passions and desires defy our moral convictions.

Phaedra's tragedy is that she recognizes her desires as sinful and wrong, but is unable to quell them. In a momentary lapse of reason, precipitated by her husband's disappearance and presumed death, she confesses her love to her young and handsome stepson. Rejected by Hippolytus and faced with the return of her husband, the devastated Phaedra tries to salvage the situation by accusing her stepson of rape.

But this is ancient Greece and the mighty Gods get involved, bringing a sure curse and ensuing death in their wake. To make a long story short it suffices to say that few characters are lucky enough to leave the stage alive.

There is thus plenty of death and drama in "Phaedra," but director Liz Diamond has wisely chosen to tone down the external happenings to concentrate on Phaedra's internal struggle.

Set designer Richard Hernandez' expressive copper tiled walls move in on Phaedra, imprisoning her in a claustrophobic space symbolic of her trapped soul. The distorted reflections coming off the shiny copper tiles suggest pain and agony, while the eerie music and the subtle lighting serve to illustrate Phaedra's mood shifts and inner turmoil.

The costumes, superbly designed by Catherine Zuber, are an artistic achievement in their own right. Phaedra's blood-red dress with its golden ribbons and Hippolytus' cream colored outfit work well both as symbols of passion and innocence, and as decorative elements on a stage where the costumes provide the only color. As far as esthetics goes, this production is a rare treat.

But the production's main strength is also its main weakness. Liz Diamond's beautifully conceived theatrical setting is stylized to the point of abstraction, making it difficult for the actors to fit in. Randy Danson, who plays Phaedra, has the hardest task. She has to embody Phaedra's ambivalent struggle between lust and logic, an internal process that is not easily communicated to the audience.

Moving across the stage like an opera singer, with slow and heavy steps, Danson portrays Phaedra as a sad and bitter woman who is tired of fighting her emotions. Considering the complexity of her task, Danson does a superb job in conveying Phaedra's distress and anxieties. The object of her desire, Hippolytus, is played with youthfulness and vigor by Benjamin Everett, while her husband, the confident but vulnerable King of Athens, is portrayed by the astute Jonathan Epstein. But the acting, however accomplished, never really blends in with Liz Diamond's simple and symbolic design.

Part of the problem may be Paul Schmidt's new adaptation of Racine's classic play. By translating Racine's verse into modern conversational English, Schmidt looses some of the distance that is ensured by older versions. We take things more literally when they are spoken in everyday language, but it comes at the expense of our ability to abstract from the actual story-line and enjoy the play as a parable, something that the highly stylized stage design invites us to do. It also doesn't help that Schmidt fills the text with monotheistic references like "Oh my God" and "God almighty" phrases that seem strangely out-of place in a play where Venus, Eros and Neptune are pulling the strings.

Make no mistakes; the slight esthetic dissonance does not make this a lesser production. Director Liz Diamond has managed something quite remarkable. Invigorating an important and profound classic with new life and relevance without making it seem forced and vulgar (something that happens all too often, even at A.R.T.) is not an easy task, and requires both artistic integrity and courage. "Phaedra" now showing at the Loeb Drama Center proves that Diamond possesses both these qualities in abundance.