Traditionally, a playwright approaches a story from one angle. Avant-garde theater sometimes break a situation into multiple components and present them prismatically or kaleidoscopically. Phaedra(s), a production from the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe which has touched down briefly at BAM this month, is a third kind of theater, a very rare sort of production that draws several sources together and turns them into a statement greater than the sum of the parts, yet maintains the integrity of each.
Isabelle Huppert’s marvelous performance is really three marvelous performances in one. Best known, to American audiences at least, for her many film roles, the French dynamo has made several appearances on the New York stage of late, including with Cate Blanchett in a Sydney Theater Company production of The Maids. In Phaedra(s) she takes on a greater challenge, leading a superb cast and commanding attention through a mini-marathon of three and a half hours.
From Euripides we have the original legend of Phaedra, hero-king Theseus’s wife, who falls in love with her husband’s son Hippolytus – and thereby hangs a tragic and bloody tale. Phaedra(s) draws on riffs and interpretations of the story by playwright Sarah Kane, Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee, and Wajdi Mouawad, the distinguished author and opera and theater director.
Krzysztof Warlikowski, artistic director of the Nowy Teatr in Warsaw, has staged this kind of conception before. His (A)pollonia used texts by, among others, Coetzee and not one but two ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus and Euripides. Warlikowski has also spent much creative energy adapting Proust for the stage. I suspect the director’s strong interest in the Phaedra character, and Proust’s many pages depicting his young hero’s reaction to seeing the actress he idolizes play the title role in Racine’s Phèdre, are not coincidental.
Warlikowski conceived this production with Huppert in mind. Its combination of raw physicality, emotional acrobatics, and verbal and intellectual rigor requires an actor of fearlessness and plenty of stamina. First Huppert is Aphrodite, a modern version of the goddess gliding in like a top-of-the-world fashion model with a serene, literally holier-than-thou confidence. Introduced by a passionate musical number sung earthily by Norah Krief and danced by Rosalba Torres Guerrero, the goddess asserts her ice-queen version of the Olympian point of view with withering, cockeyed energy, transfixing us even with her eyes hidden behind oversized sunglasses.
The theme of how gods and mortals interact returns in the final segment when Huppert appears as a breezily confident and (here) very French academic. Elizabeth Costello, from Coetzee’s novel of that name, propounds her philosophical ideas on the subject to an interviewer (Andrzej Chyra), bowling him over with a whirlwind of learned, frank talk about the physical relations between deities and humans. This startling, funny segment could have made a powerful one-act in itself. By its end, I was half-convinced those old gods not only really existed but were still observing us from the upper reaches of our universe.
In between her goddess and her professor, Huppert gives us a Phaedra worthy of a Proustian imagination. The banished queen thrashes about in a hotel room, confessing her passion for her stepson and bewailing her hyper-sexualized woes to Oenone (Krief), her nurse and friend. Tortured by her happiness, she craves shame to drive it away. Then she tries to obliterate her incestuous sin by committing a worse one: killing an innocent (purété;), a dog played with compelling gravitas by Gaël Kamilindi.
Kamilindi is also the play’s first Hippolytus, who lies on a bed with Phaedra in a powerful but imagined scene of passion conveyed through large-scale projection – they’re here on stage, but their real presence is magnified and in close-up. This filmic treatment jibes with the scene’s unreality, and parallels the clips of real films shown during the later lecture/interview scene.
Modernity is in full swing during Phaedra’s fascinating (but, for me, a bit too long) seduction scene with Hippolytus, here a dissolute schlub (Chyra) vegetating in his room watching a loop of the shower scene from Psycho and playing with a remote-control toy car. The flip side of Phaedra’s tightly wound passion there is her deadpan-funny, affectless consultation with a doctor (Alex Descas, who also plays the small role of Theseus) about Hippolytus’s condition and her own. “Get over him,” the doctor advises. “You’re in love with him!” accuses her daughter Strophe (an acute performance by a willowy Agata Buzek).
This Phaedra reveals her essence in the seduction scene, when she drops her skirt and stands helplessly, in front of Hippolytus but alone, waving her arms with useless, entirely nonsexual energy. The show’s frequent and vivid sexuality jolts precisely because moments like that place it in context, making its desperation and disappointment – as well as its bliss – all too recognizable. The sex is sometimes vividly simulated, other times abstractly represented, as when Theseus coldly thrusts himself on top of his wife’s corpse even as the narration describes him kneeling beside it on its pyre.
Even in death Phaedra presides, observing via projection as Hippolytus confesses to Theseus the rape he didn’t commit. In a climactic set-piece displaying the whole family before us for the one and only time, Hippolytus in death becomes a growling animal, a primitive version of the dog his mother killed, fangs closed around a red shoe. During the costume change for the lecture/interview scene, Guerrero presents a dance that’s animalistic, repetitive, violent, exhausting to watch. Through it all, and over that funny final lecture scene, Phaedra’s echo looms, much as these Phaedra(s) will stay with me.
Phaedra(s) has final performances tonight and tomorrow at BAM.