The ART presentation of Jean Racine's deeply moralizing tragedy, Phaedra, truly embodies a level of theatee mastery, encompassing a seamless translation of foreign script, subtle adaptations of classic roles and overwhelming ambiance which emanates from a towering backdrop. Each minute detail, from exquisite costumes to on-stage blocking of positions, enhances the portrayal of this Greek tale of passion, deceit and inescapable fate. As an audience member, one becomes lost in the flow of events and the intensity of exchanges as the saga unravels in captivating sequence.
Phaedra, a neoclassical tragedy of the 17th century, represents Racine's finest masterpiece of the theater and continues to reign at the forefront of classic dramatic literature. What distinguishes Phaedra from other plays of moral struggle and human vice is its impeccable portrayal of personality and inner debate through rich, introspective dialogue. The play itself is based on Euripides' account of Greek mythology in which a complex scenario involving Gods, mortals, family vendettas and suppressed libido interact in a whirlwind of death and revenge. The plot itself is a vast intertwining of story lines, rooted in a background of bestiality and Amazon romance. The pivotal action focuses on Phaedra, wife of Theseus, who becomes consumed with an incestuous desire to pursue her own stepson, Hypolytus. Inevitably, the plot thickens as emotional disclosure and interpersonal confrontation complicate the dynamics of this severely disturbed and dysfunctional family.
The ART successfully revved up this potentially haggard drama, even though the scandalous plot alone might not have raised an eyebrow in this age of steamy soap operas and histrionic performances. Through a combination of script translation by Paul Schmidt, directing talents of Liz Diamond and the acting prowess of the entire cast, this production of Phaedra is noteworthy for its modernity and multidimensional symbolism.
The set, designed by Riccardo Hernandez, involves oppressive metallic walls which are corrugated effectively to reflect and swallow light, creating both ethereal and demonic auras. The variations in lighting and musical interludes flow harmoniously from scene to scene, from fits of passion to furious rage. In addition, Catherine Zuber's intricately patterned kimonos and rustic leather vests emphasize the romantic undertones of the play; the shapes and aesthetics of the costumes are carefully integrated into the profile of each character and with the shimmering metallic backdrop give the stage a bizarre, beautiful aura.
The translation of the script is one of the greatest feats of this Americanized performance. Paul Schmidt converted Racine's French Alexandrine couplets into the American vernacular, avoiding awkward idioms and unnatural word sequences so that the targeted audience is virtually unaware of the play's original language. Although not as eloquent and lyrical as typical 17th century verse, the clear and unbroken dialogue provides for effortless comprehension on the part of an American audience. As for individual performances, each cast member skillfully plays out his or her part in Phaedra's psychological battlefield: Randy Danson, in the title role, effectively relays the wrenching inner turmoil of her character, while Benjamin Evett instills Hypolytus with a sense of naivete and youthful nerve. Theseus--Jonathan Epstein--delivers a charged performance as well, with his towering stature and the gruff voice of an Athenian warrior. The production appears to intentionally spark audience laughter in the most wrenching scenes. At times, the play pounds on with a tragic death occurring every 30 seconds and the pathetically ragged messenger scurrying on and off stage, uttering in melodramatic rasp, "Master, he/she's dead!"
In effect, the ART's production of Phaedra is transformed into a timeless cross-cultural masterpiece with its successful adaptation of script and plot. While one doesn't hear the phrase "I have Venus in my veins like a virus" commonly in everyday vernacular, its implications are understood. This production, like the new translation, voices the ethos of Racine's original but also escapes the stodginess of many contemporary takes on pre-modern plays.