By the end of this marvelous experience—and it is an experience—you’ll not only appreciate theater more, but you’ll understand the process too.
How’s this for ambition: six actors and one director set out to train in Greece for a month and then come back to perform three dramatically different versions of Phaedra in repertoire. There’s the classic (Racine’s Phedre, as opposed to Euripides’ original), the modern (Matthew Maguire’s Phaedra) and the neo-expressionist (Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love). Each has its own unique vision and flair, but One Year Lease, by giving theatergoers the opportunity to compare and contrast all three, has triumphed with an overall production that can only be titled Phaedra x3. The classics are made contemporary (and vice versa), and while there are some imbalances throughout, this is edutainment for anyone interested in theater.
The only constant for each production, beyond the cast and crew, is a brilliantly minimalist set, designed by James Hunting. Plastic sheets that swing on hinges double as columns, windows and walls—only semi-transparent, they lend a ghostly air to each scene and play well with the lighting. Two lonely gray benches only accentuate the empty space, and it’s nice to get away from all the bells and whistles that plague today’s theater. This bare-boned approach forces the actors to really tell the story with themselves, and that singular focus is more grounded in the theater than any big-budget extravaganza.
Phedre (by Jean Racine; translated by Ted Hughes)
Be warned: Racine’s Phedre is perhaps more a necessary background to enjoy the other two performances than an enjoyable play itself.
Though Racine’s Phedre was written in the 17th century, in verse, Ted Hughes’s translation is surprisingly clear. Natural and direct, the language is often straight to the point and joyfully lucid. Unfortunately, it is often lucid over the course of repetitious rants, elongated exposition and ponderous pacing.
In this archetypal tragedy, “sadistic gods” amuse themselves by “toying with human hearts,” and while there are all the stereotypes of Greek myth—togas, bare-feet, swords—this tale of incest is far from standard. Phedre (Susannah Melone) is in love with her step-son Hippolytus (Danny Bernardy). What’s more, trying to suppress her feelings—she tries to drive Hippolytus away by acting as a cold-hearted bitch—has driven her insane, and she now yearns to die. Of course, you can’t have the climax at the beginning of the play, and so Oenone (Jennie Hahn) paves the road with good intentions and convinces Phedre to live . . . and to love. This is a great story (and perhaps a necessity to get the most out of the other two plays of Phaedra x3), but it’s also a bland bit of theater, full of one-dimensional archetypes delivering a lot of talk and no action.
That said, there’s not much for the actors or director to do here, save for an attempt at natural theater. The blocking seems minimal and imprecise and the acting is fine, but after a while, it all grows redundant. There’s a sense of lethargy, as if the cast would do more if they could, particularly Danny Bernardy (who plays Hippolytus). Here he’s like soda gone flat: not his fault; Racine’s Hippolytus just happens to be a martyr, and apparently nothing else. The one exception is Aricia (Christina Bennett Lind), love interest of Hippolytus. Although she is never allowed to do more than fawn, the desire in her eyes rings true, and her few monologues are like verbal orgies . . . if words were pictures, it would be soft-core porn. Susannah Melone, who plays Phedre, would do well to find that sexuality if she’s ever to be “a woman in frenzy.” All of her current whirling around is poetic, but it seems forced, and because she never calms down, we never see her as anything but deranged. (It doesn’t help that Melone has an unflattering vocal habit, inhaling deeply—like a fish gasping for water—throughout her speeches.)
By the second act, Racine’s already covered most of the interesting philosophical nuances; the dialogue loses its poetry and sounds suspiciously like summary (which makes sense considering the play loses all forward momentum); and without a real climax, it all just drags on.
Phaedra (by Matthew Maguire)
The trophy horse of other adaptations, Maguire’s Phaedra is swift (yet pervasive), violent (but not gratuitous), and physically compelling.
If Phaedra was music, it would be jazz. Along with a little bit of erratic techno, that’s the soundtrack director Ianthe Demos has chosen for Matthew Maguire’s adaptation. This sense of dance infuses the show with slow-building passion and then smoldering heat. The plastic walls swivel around and props—like a single wooden chair with a red cushion—become the actor’s partners in one long, slow, sultry dance. The whole thing is a sleek machine that slows only to revel in its own masterfully modern poetic language (“Her ass bouncing up and down on my love nerve . . .”). The whole cast of Phaedra x3 has this version down best—especially Gregory Waller, whose rigid brooding and wry deliveries are a perfect match for the manipulative, all-business Thomas (Theseus), CEO (ruler) of a major corporation (kingdom).
The perfect medium between the tame and tedious Phedre and the wild and stylized Phaedra’s Love, Maguire’s Phaedra is the full package. While there are a few rough spots during set changes (and in some of the more abrupt and fragmentary scenes), the pacing is so swift and physical that we are happy just plunging ahead. Maguire also takes some much-needed liberty with the plot to enhance the familial tension: Thomas’s apparent death—the catalyst for Faye (Phaedra) to begin wooing her step-son William (Hippolytus)—comes much later in the show. Even then, he is never absent—he speaks cryptically and sporadically from behind a plastic curtain)—just like the cast itself, which watches from the front row of the theater. This effect serves to make the characters more present, even as the script develops them further. The one small complaint is Faye’s scheming servant: she’s written more like the ancient Oenone than the modern Nonny, and it’s a bit anachronistic. Thankfully, of Maguire’s wise redactions, Oenone’s manipulative, hand-wringing monologues are the first to go.
Instead, Maguire gets physical, and too much is never enough. From the pelvic grindings of William and Thomas to the sensual undulations of Faye and Aricia, clear physical actions are what allow the cast to swell with the text, rather than to be overpowered by it. The play is broken only by the interstitial scene changes, unwieldy black spots in an otherwise caroming plot. Perhaps this is director Ianthe Demos’ fault, since her blocking is also at times a bit too indulgent (characters climb atop benches and circle each other like wrestlers in heat), but I’m inclined to give Demos the benefit of the doubt, considering how impeccable the rest of her work in Phaedra is.
The one moment that really sells Phaedra (and Susannah Melone, who I’ll confess to disliking in the other two versions) is between Faye and William. With Thomas apparently dead, in a car crash, Faye has resolved to ensnare William with a drinking game involving grain alcohol (190 proof). The plan ultimately backfires, but Melone is absolutely giddy in the moment, and at last we see Phaedra as a vulnerable and helpless lover, rather than a despotic bitch using love as an excuse.
Phaedra’s Love (by Sarah Kane)
“Different” is the word that first comes to mind. It may possibly be the only word that comes to mind: all the shock value makes it hard to find the right word.
Phaedra’s Love begins simply enough: lights—here, the dim flicker of a television’s glow—up. Hippolytus—or at least Sarah Kane’s modern, apathetic rendition of him—slumps between piles of his own filth, listening to the loud blare of violence on the boob tube. He reaches for a dirty sock and blows his nose on it. After a few more minutes, between bites of a cheeseburger, he grabs another sock and carefully stuffs it down his boxer shorts and masturbates to gunshots on the TV. There’s a raw sense of discomfort, and Danny Bernardy (as Hippolytus) oozes this anti-hero charisma, and then all of a sudden, the scene shifts, the chorus comes on, and the play begins.
“Different” is the word that first comes to mind. It may possibly the only word that comes to mind: there’s a lot of shock value, and I’d belie its effect to try and describe it. What I can tell you is that this is a hyper-stylized performance piece, rigorously choreographed all the way down to the faux blow jobs and onstage bloodbaths. Ianthe Demos could push the envelope a bit further, but that’s like saying you could twist the knife a little more: either way, you’ve still been stabbed.
For all the detachment—actors interact with each other as if they’re on different planes of existence—Phaedra’s Love is extremely affecting. Not the lines themselves, those are either sterilized by their monotonous deliveries or laughed at nervously. Not the characters either: they’re absent, and it’s hard to feel attached or invested. But the technical precision, the whole process of subtle expressionism . . . you’d have to be familiar with Phaedra (and thanks to Phaedra x3, you can) to understand that we are seeing everything through Phaedra’s maddened eyes.
It is a numbing and reductive one-act, painfully bleak, and yet incredibly poignant. The climax here is frightening: an unseen stage manager, robotic and cold, reads the stage directions as a voice-over. Onstage, the actors go through the motions, like puppets, helpless and dangling. It may not be the Phaedra, or even the theater, that you expect: but it is a masterful work regardless.
Cherry Lane Theater Studio: 38 Commerce Street
Tickets: $15 for one, $25 for two, $35 for three (212-352-3101)
Racine/Hughes Performances: Dec. 13, 16, 20 @ 7:00
Maguire Performances: Dec. 14, 21 @ 7:00, Dec. 17 @ 2:00
Kane Performances: Dec. 15, 17, 22 @ 7:00
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.