What do you do when you come home and find out your wife and stepson are, as the gossips say, an item? That’s the domestic dilemma of the Greek hero-king Theseus, who’s been gone so long everybody thinks he’s dead. His lonesome wife Phaedra finds herself drawn to the closest approximation, Theseus’ son, Hippolytus.
Under the supervision of resident director Klaus ven den Berg, the Clarence Brown Theatre is staging Jean Racine’s Phaedra, performed in the round in their Lab Theatre, a small, intimate venue that’s underused, as far as I’m concerned.
Phaedra is an ancient Greek story of lust and horror retold by Jean Racine in 17th-century France. Clarence Brown further updates the classical myth to modern America.
Being French, Racine changed the names to Thesee, Phedre, and Hippolyte, French versions of the original Greek, and pronounced as such. But this production adds contemporary American costumes, and repeated but always startling audio collages of American news reports from the last 70-odd years, at scene changes. It’s like a four-dimensional multicultural mixer.
The simplest things about the production are the set and props. They consist, in their entirety, of a plexiglass box and a revolver. The pistol gets some use before the play ends.
With less care, the plot could sound like a rerun of Jerry Springer; as presented, it doesn’t seem lurid. However, Minnesotan Jacques Durand gives Thesee a syrupy Southern accent; in the context of this extremely dysfunctional family drama, it seems almost a nod to Tennessee Williams’ centenary.
The actors, one in particular, seem deliberately to portray distracted modern Americans. When Oenone, Phedre’s confidante, says, “By the many tears I have shed for you, deliver me from hellish doubt!” she delivers the line in exactly the same tone you might overhear someone at the mall say, “You totally never talk to me!”
Maybe the modernizing, like the newsy soundtrack, freshens the story in some way, but it feels like a gimmick. Why would Theseus, by any other name, make his surprising return from his months-long adventures with a gray suit coat casually draped over his shoulder, looking a little pooped, as if he were a sales rep returning from a disappointing call? For that matter, why would anyone in a suit like that ever be in the company of a couple of people in flashy evening dresses, and another guy dressed for a rumble, another in vest and untucked shirt, like a Seattle barista?
There were several times I would have preferred they were all in togas. We could pay more attention to the dialogue. The mostly undergraduate cast occasionally messed up their lines, and often spat. It happens in all productions, but the bright central lighting in this intimate theater in the round highlights it. You expect one to respond, “Say it, yet spray it not.”
Samantha Huskey fills the regally cool title role of Phedre. The key role of Hippolyte, the young stud, is played by Patrick Murphy, an untried actor who wears black jeans, a leather jacket and boots, and applies a method-acting-era swagger to the role. An obvious homage to Brando and his posse, Murphy’s portrayal isn’t an imitation. He brings something original, and a little bit weird, to the persona of the troubled but cool youth. His conversational rhythms, rising and falling to a whisper, are so strange that at first I didn’t think he was speaking English. His accent, if it was an accent at all, was unrecognizable. (In referring to his father’s most famous conquest, did he say, “Mino-tower”?) He acts as if for an intimate movie camera, without overt gestures or expressions, in a way that struck this reporter as refreshingly realistic.
Still, Murphy has a presence, and prowls edges of the small stage, often backwards. We watch him with some anxiety, partly to see if he’s going to fall off the edge this time. He always stops just short. The party I was with could not agree about whether he was the best or the worst thing about the production. We did agree that he was one or the other. He has a broody, sometimes threatening charisma.
His relationship with Aricie, played by Jenna Purdy, seems sincere, in contrast to that with Phedre—they’re even canoodling when they’re not on center stage, back behind the audience somewhere. Aricie’s equally passionate interest in Ismene, played by appealing newcomer Sarah Jordan Stout, isn’t explained. It doesn’t necessarily advance the plot, but there are any number of ancient plays that might be freshened up by allowing the actresses to kiss each other whenever they’re inclined to.
Despite its many distractions, the odd production of Phaedra is a pretty fair presentation of the script, which is a meditation on the paradoxes of love and sad eternal truths about human relationships.
It’s not a polished production, by Clarence Brown standards. But it’s the Lab Theatre, after all, and Phaedra is a worthwhile experiment.