PHAEDRA(S) at BAM
The trouble and the treasure of writing about modern adaptations of ancient myths is that there is too much context and too many references from centuries of retelling and analysis, so that I could read about Phaedra the myth and Phaedra the woman for the rest of my life and endlessly form and inform and reform my opinions, based off everyone else’s.
Caridad Svich alluded to this phenomenon, which she calls “writing the ephemeral,” in the Phaedra Interpreted talk at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall this past Sunday, as part of the Brooklyn Book Fair, where she spoke with fellow playwright Charles Mee and moderator Kaneza Schaal. Svich is enamored with the role an author plays in the long history of these stories, tweaking and twisting them to our perspective and our interests, only to have our versions examined and erased by those who follow. It gets to the question of a universal story — why has this tragic, traumatic story been so appealing for so long to so many people?
So here’s my take, to be immediately erased by the next person’s, probably, on Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), a compilation of texts by Wajdi Mouawad, Sarah Kane, J. M. Coetzee, and Racine himself, which ran at BAM as part of the 2016 Next Wave Festival September 13-18, starring Isabelle Huppert.
Phaedra(s) was an enormous production in terms of star power, length, and ambition that failed to deliver the novel telling it promised. Ample care clearly went into the design, including lighting, sound, set, projections, and costumes, to create this dystopian kingdom. I appreciated most the mirror that reflected the audience back on stage, thereby breaking down the fourth wall and welcoming us into this house of ill repute.
If I were to offer a very simple analysis of Phaedra(s), it would be: fantasy, reality, consequences. The act break complicated this structure, but generally, that was the journey we took: originating in Wajdi Mouawad’s dream world where Aphrodite, goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation, becomes Phaedra herself, and Phaedra burns with lust for Hippolytus until she finally expresses it, at which point the only way they can satisfy their desire is to turn a French “little death” into quite a big death — Phaedra stabs Hippolytus in the heart at the moment of climax.
Throughout this first part especially, but truly, over the course of the whole play, I was reminded yet again of that fundamental difference between French acting and American acting. Whereas Americans ground their actions and motivations in playing with the other characters on stage, the French set each character spinning in their own little bubble, occasionally colliding with another character along the way. I wonder if French acting was always like this — so much based on gesture and exaggeration and mimicry. I am accustomed to seeing actors really cry when they cry on stage in American theater, whereas all the tears in this production were a loud pantomime. I also detest when actors and/or directors choose to represent female madness with a woman lolling about on stage, and Huppert did a lot of lolling in this first part, dragging herself along on her elbows, beating her bloody vagina, etc.
In part two, Sarah Kane’s reality, we see Phaedra as victim, not only of her own mad desire, but also society’s demonization of the sexual woman. Hint number one: the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho was silently playing on loop on the television in the background throughout the entire wretched birthday encounter between Phaedra and Hippolytus. In supplicating Hippolytus for sex, Phaedra is pitiful, she is insane, she is immoral, she is stubborn, she is selfish, and no one is satisfied. She kills herself (for the second time) shortly after, and we then watch Hippolytus have semi-consensual sex with her daughter, Strophe. He is a monster, certainly, but his sexual prowess is portrayed as normal, male, powerful, and unavoidable, whereas Phaedra’s lust is perceived as sick and twisted.
And just to continue this double standard right up into the twenty-first century, there was a noticeable lack of male on male action for all the sex in this play. Whereas Huppert did a convincing pantomime of a blow job in the birthday sex encounter with Hippolytus, when the priest visits Hippolytus in his jail cell to make him confess his sins (but of course he won’t, because he’s godless), the two men don’t actually kiss when they “kiss,” and fellatio is represented by Hippolytus dropping his pants and both men staying very, very still. For all the degrading behavior we have just seen from Phaedra, did Warlikowski decide it was too much to show gay intimacy on stage?
Finally, we come to J. M. Coetzee’s Phaedra, which, given the disjointed nature of the show, at first felt like an unannounced talk-back. After hours of darkness, this scene offered a much appreciated dose of humor, intellect, and levity, but it also felt a little cheap, as if Warlikowski didn’t trust the audience to understand the action that had just taken place, so now we were going to have an academic discourse on it. Tonally, Phaedra(s) experimented wildly, and although I was along for the ride for most of it, this version felt unnecessary. When the characters lapsed into Racine’s original text at the very end, I had never been more overjoyed to hear straight alexandrine verse.
Phaedra’s story is difficult, no matter how it’s being told, and all these layers of complication did not feel enlightening, but instead like being bludgeoned. I imagine these myths were easier to swallow back when the Greeks could blame the gods, rather than themselves. I can understand how, in theory, multiple tellings of this myth within the frame of one play give us the idea of the multiple myths and truths that history contains, but this production didn’t hang together and build on itself, it rather just smashed all these authors together and dropped the curtain. Wajdi Mouawad and Krzysztof Warlikowski worked closely together to create the first telling, and then Warlikowski adapted Kane and Coetzee’s texts for the rest of the show. This approach highlights another important difference between American and French (European, really) theater — while Americans worship the playwright as separate from their director counterparts, in Europe, the director is god, plucking and manipulating text as (s)he (but usually he) pleases.
Which brings up the all-important question of agency. Mee professed at the Borough Hall talk that he didn’t think this was a play about woman’s desire. If this story isn’t about Phaedra’s desire, then she loses any semblance of power she has over her own narrative. If we aren’t interrogating her desire, then her suicide means nothing. If we are not trying to empathize with what she wants (love, acknowledgement, sex, intimacy, the power of achieving her own sexual conquest and undermining her husband’s power over her), then why watch her throw herself around the stage mad with desire, irrational with lust, ravaged by her own body? If it’s not about her desire, why does she come back as a silent projected ghost, observing Hippolytus in prison, and personified in the “Arab dancer” Rosalba Torres Guerrero for a final scene of wild, hypnotic gyration on the grave of Hippolytus? It is clear that what agency Phaedra had was restricted by the society in which she lived. But if her motivations are not the center of her eponymous story, then I’m not sure why we are still telling it at all.