Jarcho Riffs on PHEDRE: “pathetic” at Abrons Arts Center

Photo by Elke Young

“Vice is everywhere painted in colors which render its deformity recognizable and hateful.”
Introduction to Phedre — Racine

“I forgot you don’t have a pussy, just two butts.”
Clara from Pathetic — Julia Jarcho

Minor Theater’s pathetic, running at Abrons Arts Center through June 23rd, begins as Rosario (Linda Mancini) and her daughter Consuelo (Kim Gainer) lay asleep on the couch. After a silhouetted Venus warns us, hilariously, of the danger of love, a montage of beautiful men is projected above the mother-daughter duo. The men smile bemusedly. They clasp their hands behind their heads. They slowly blink, or slowly take off their shirts, or slowly shoot people. These men in the montage are not the corny kind that make a mockery of female lust — they are not stereotypical himbos with hard round muscles that no woman actually wants to sleep with. These are men whose outsides reflect their complicated, tortured insides. These are men you think you might be able to help feel better, or at least behave better. Kurt Cobain’s hooded eyes lift slowly in his MTV Unplugged session. Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall spar in Brokeback Mountain. Idris Elba cracks a wide, sad, knowing, smile. Watching, the audience collectively giggles at these shared erotic secrets, felt or recognized.  

The play opens into a high-school drama: three teenagers, Clara (Jenny Seastone), Millicent (Kristine Haruna Lee) and Consuelo play the sexually precocious bully, the sheltered innocent, and the bereft, respectively, the girls you knew in your high school even if you didn’t get too close. They lust after or scorn Clyde, (Jordan Baum) the goth boy who’s charming in his dim-witted arrogance, and they circle Mr. Goader (Ben Williams – also running live sound design), the nerdy perv of a teacher. pathetic is writer/director Julia Jarcho’s riff on Racine’s Phedre, the neo-classical exploration of a woman’s lust, so of course it takes place in a high school. High school is a place of hierarchies, and of blind, stupid passions explored recklessly and unguardedly. It is the court of our worst, most compromising choices.

pathetic is the most thrillingly sticky and complicated in its portrayal of Rosario, Consuelo’s mother.  Lustful but self-hating, with a husband in jail, Rosario struggles with her unbridled attraction to the men around her. When she is inducted into the cult of Venus in a satisfyingly gasp-y plot twist, her pursuit of men evokes a panoply of complex emotions and judgments. Is there anything more, well, pathetic than watching a woman pursue a man who probably doesn’t want her?

At the production level, Minor Theatre’s show is an eerily precise, joyfully bloody discourse on how female lust pits the ugly against the beautiful in a ceaseless death match. This pairing begins in Jarcho’s script, in which the dialogue toggles between colloquial prose and the hexameter that Racine favored (and, sidenote, is extremely difficult to write in English). At first, hexameter emerges mostly when the high schoolers perform very loosely translated Racine in French class. But when Rosario is resurrected by Venus, hexameter slips into the play like a virus — structured lyricism infects and defamiliarizes the play’s modern chatter.

Likewise, the setting is El Paso, Texas, a place that can either seem like an endless stretch of strip malls and fast food or an endless stretch of dazzling desert. The design for much of the play feels subversively hideous – black trash bags stand in as curtains; faded video, plastic crowns, and grab-bag costumes. And yet when the character Consuelo finally speaks to her imprisoned dad, it is portrayed in a heart-thudding video sequence, as rhythmic and beautiful as he himself is. When she says the words, “In my soul / there’s something like the sun,” the theater is overtaken by stars. When Rosario emerges in a crown, high heels, and a bustier, she seems absurd and embarrassing — a woman trying to be something she’s not. But when she stood in front of her daughter, fully naked, I was transfixed and moved by her beauty.

After seeing pathetic, playwright/performer Kate Benson and I talked about whether we all remember high school in the same way. “It’s as though high school was, for all of us, a collective hallucination,” I said. “Or at least our hallucinations recognized each other,” Benson said, more accurately. “My hallucination saw your hallucination. It was there, on a far away mountain. I think it was raining.”

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