Trial and Error

The Yale School of Drama has just completed its presentation of Phedre, penned by French master playwright Jean Racine in 1677. In this production, dramaturg Brian Valencia and director Christopher Mirto opted for the 1998 translation by Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath's widower, but in the end, there is no knowing if any other translation—such as those by John Cairncross or R.C. Knight or Robert Lowell—would have helped much in the mighty struggle that ensued to bring this tragedy to life. Back story is critical to grasping what's going on, and the playbill aids mightily in this regard. The tragic figure of this tale of lust and betrayal is not Phaedra (I'll be sticking to the anglicized spelling for this review), but her husband Theseus, famed slayer of the Cretan Minotaur. At this late stage in his career, his reputation lies largely in his womanizing, and by the time of the play's action, his reputation for selfish indulgence has begun to overtake that for heroics. Minotaur slaying notwithstanding, the play's cast of characters is already more than familiar with his abandonment of former lover and one-time savior, Ariadne, on the Greek isle of Naxos; his wooing and fathering of Hippolytus on the Amazon Antiope before his desertion of her; and finally his return to Crete, where, adding insult to injury, he takes Ariadne's sister, Phaedra, to wife. But poor Phaedra! In the noble tradition of ancient Greek bedroom drama, her heart belongs not to Theseus, but his son, Hippolytus, whom she persuades Theseus to banish, figuring out of sight, out of mind. Such reasoning works well enough until Theseus, Phaedra, and their two children are exiled in turn by Theseus' father, Aegeus, to Troezen, Hippolytus' current home. Poetic justice indeed!

Now Phaedra must confront the tabooed passion for her stepson, while, Hippolytus, frustrated by his years of exile, has fallen hard for another prisoner of Troezen, Aricia, descendant of Pallas and his line, the sworn enemies of Theseus, who originally placed her there. Who knew Troezen was such a hothouse of intemperate decisions and mad passions! Telenovelas clearly have nothing on Greek mythology, which renders all the more difficult the performative challenges of this particular play.

To put it bluntly, the drama school students simply bit off more than they could chew. This production illuminated only too well the hurdles presented to any modern theatre company by a play featuring an overwrought story of ancient Greece told by a 17th-century French playwright translated by a 20th-century literary patrician for a 21st-century audience. The connective tissue of problems in this production stems from variety of sources: set design, body language, line delivery, plotting. Untangling the web is no small matter, but it is, without doubt, educative.

Let's start with set design. It is notably at variance with the fairly traditional presentation. This version of Phaedra is not some gussied up modernization—although Racine's script could easily support, in artful hands, a campy soap opera. No, this is a straight shot, through and through, so why the set design effect of doors that open in all parts of the stage (lower story and, upper story doors, ceiling hatches and trap doors)? Perhaps the arrangement is intended to convey a certain lack of privacy—everybody seems to know everybody's business, or will eventually, which is the nature of tragedy. Perhaps it is to bring to the fore a certain dynamism that the play lacks because of its Racinian stiffness. One can't be sure, however, the net effect hurts the entire production for one very critical reason: the upper doors require stairways—in this case metal rail versions—that take up stage space, specifically back stage right and front stage left (the latter of which has the equally deleterious effect of "screening" off back stage left), and end up forcing the actors to crowd the corner of front stage right or work the stairs themselves, considerably limiting their ability to move about and gesture freely.

Consequently, too many characters stand block still during their recitations or when ostensibly listening, no doubt to avoid falling off the stairs. One notable exception stands out: Shannon Sullivan's Ismene, who quite literally writhes like a pole dancer during an exchange over her mistress Aricia's yearnings for the seemingly disdainful Hippolytus. Overplayed perhaps, it is still one of the few instances that the stairs as props aid instead of hinder the play's emotional dynamic. Otherwise, this "stairway" effect of tableau-like posing not only impedes much of the play's potential dynamism, but comes to infect the floor action as well. Too often body language is so minimal that there is sometimes none at all. In other instances, it's just too modern. Andrew Kelsey's Hippolytus' line work is not bad, but the military swagger is just a little too New York City. The military stiffness we expect of ancient Greek military bearing—even if that expectation is itself a modern fiction—was just not there.

The stiffening character of this stairway effect also enters too much of the dialogue itself. A great deal of this can be directly attributed to the difficulties of performing "high drama" of this sort. Our modern sensibilities, heavily shaped by dialogue as rapid-fire exchange and not as declamation or soliloquy, present one of the greatest challenges to the modern actor. How the hell does anyone today deliver Shakespeare or Racine, Corneille or Ben Jonson, and actually connect with their audiences instead of putting them to sleep or evoking laughter? I don't envy the actors who face this challenge. But as audience members, we know when actors pull it off, and we know when they don't. Indeed, when it works, we admire that much more the thespians who seem to make it seem so artless. So, yes, I have more respect for Emma Thompson than Julia Roberts because Thompson can do Shakespeare and do it well. Roberts? Your guess is as good as mine.

In this production, they don't pull it off. Far more attention and training needed to be given to line work, to beats and pauses, slow downs and speed ups, to muttered asides and changes in pitch and volume. Christina Maria Acosta's Aricia gives a rather good show at this level, but there was too much stillness of body for a character so potentially riven by passion. On the other hand, there is absolutely no doubt that the show belonged entirely to Austin Durant's Theseus. He growls and howls; speaks low only to erupt in shouted imprecations; he holds his arms up high to rain down curses upon his falsely accused son; he kneels, head in hands, to bemoan his foolish actions. Durant's Theseus moves, both verbally and physically, literally bestriding the stage like a giant. Cannily, Durant stays off the ladders, using what space is available liberally, letting gesture of body match, and then magnify, inflections of speech. It was easily a professional performance and ought be studied by fellow actors, dramaturg, and director alike for how period plays of this sort must be performed if they are to work at all in a day and age as jaded as our own.