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Phaedra(s)

A remarkably frank, fever dream contemplation of the myth of Phaedra and her dark soul.

Isabelle Huppert in a scene from “Phaedra(s)” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe)

Isabelle Huppert in a scene from “Phaedra(s)” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Waking up the morning after seeing the exquisite Isabelle Huppert turn herself inside out in Phaedra(s) at the BAM Harvey, it seemed as if the three inter-related plays, all variations on the tragic Greek myth of Phaedra-Hippolytus-Theseus, were a single feverish dream.  No, not a dream, a nightmare.

During the three and a half hours of Phaedra(s), Huppert masturbates, menstruates, throws up, fellates several versions of Hippolytus, flails about with masochistic glee, and screams so loudly and continuously as to cause fears for her vocal health, all in the service of getting to the core of the title character as imagined by Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad and J.M. Coetzee (with dramaturgy by Piotr Gruszcrynski.) Director Krzysztof Warlikowski did little more than keep the over-the-top emoting and sexuality from exploding out to Fulton Street.

On a set by Malgorzata Szczesniak that manages to evoke both space age and ancient spaces, this cast of eight valiant and determined actors and musicians show no fear in literally and figuratively exposing themselves.  A massive cube-like structure—which malfunctioned during the performance—is rolled on and off to focus attention on the more passionate scenes.  Felice Ross’s lighting makes the most of the sets and costumes even if very little color appeared on the stage.

Ms. Szczesniak’s costumes, which feature treacherously high heels for every female, including an Arab Dancer, portrayed by the voluptuous Rosalba Torres Guerrero (who is virtually naked), are decidedly modern.  Her tireless stripper exertions were choreographed by herself and Claude Bardouil.

A recurring aural theme is the amplified sound of these shoes click-clacking across the huge BAM Harvey stage from sound designer Thiery Jousse.  As in her set, the costumes can be taken as timeless, yet modern, particularly the chic dresses and expensive suits.

Although the three authors have different points of view, the ending of each story is the same:  Phaedra goes mad after seducing her step-son and dies a horrible death.  In the third and final version, she even gets to look down after death to see her body violated by Theseus who rapes her on her funeral pyre – actually a hospital dolly – before transforming herself into her final incarnation.

Isabelle Huppert and cast member in a scene from “Phaedra(s)” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe)

Isabelle Huppert and cast member in a scene from “Phaedra(s)” (Photo credit: Courtesy of Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe)

The version with the most ancient feeling was the first, “after” Lebanese-French author Wajdi Mouawad, in which Phaedra is in the guise of Aphrodite (Huppert), burning up with desire for the lovely, youthful  Hippolyte I (Gaël Kamilindi) who is pulled into her erotic gravity.  Aphrodite complains and emotes to Oenone (Norah Krief,  doubling as a wailing Arab Singer) who attempts, futilely, to temper Aphrodite/Phaedra’s passions.

In part two, Phaedra, now modeled on “Phaedra’s Love” by playwright Sara Kane, famous for her daringly violent works, is a bored upper-crust, shapely matron in a clean-cut outfit, pacing nervously around her palace, lusting after her filthy, decadant, bored stepson Hippolyte 2 (Andrzej Chyra, somehow extremely attractive in his dissolution).  When, after forcing oral sex on Hippolyte, she finds out that her daughter, Strophe (Agata Buzek, lanky and laid-back) actually had full-on intercourse with him, all hell breaks loose, mirrored by the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playing in an endless loop on a video screen behind their sexual escapades.

In the third section, which begins with the afore-mentioned violation of the body, Phaedra becomes Elizabeth Costello, a character explored in a novel by J.M. Coetzee.  Costello is a coolly tongue-in-cheek expert and author on erotic literature conducting a class led by the Senior Lecturer (Chyra, now all sexily pulled together in expensive designer duds) in which the subject of Eros leads to showing excerpts from several American and Italian films that have strong sexual subject matter, some more frank than others.  Gradually, the cool Costello morphs into Phaedra and the Senior Lecturer becomes, in her mind’s feverish flailings, her stepson.

Alex Descas plays several roles, most notably Theseus and a Priest who tries to get the louche Hippolyte to ask for forgiveness from God, a God he doesn’t believe in.  Needless to say, the Priest, himself, indulges in a bit of fellatio, exaggerating the total lack of self-control that is the subtext of Phaedra(s)—self-indulgence and the giving into pleasure is all.

Grégoire Léauté as a lithe electric guitarist supplies eerie musical sounds throughout the show, almost like a quiet heartbeat.

All the acting is brave, although almost comically over the top, led by Huppert’s extraordinary frankness, not to mention having to memorize thousands of lines of repetitive dialogue.

The makeup and hair designs by Sylvie Cailler and Jocelyne Milazzo added greatly to the characterizations.

Phaedra(s) (September 13-17, 2016)

BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn

Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe

For tickets, call 718-636-4100 or visit http://www.BAM.org

Running time:  three hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (213 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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