by Carol Rocamora
You recall Phaedra, don’t you, from Greek mythology? She’s the sex-obsessed lady who marries Theseus and then falls madly in love with her step-son, Hippolytus. Rejected, she accuses Hippolytus of raping her, and the enraged Theseus puts his son to death. As a result, the guilt-stricken Phaedra kills herself.
This not-so-merry story of incest, violence, and guilt hasn’t been retold very often recently (and no wonder). But this week, we have not one but three different versions at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a mesmerizing evening that runs the gamut from riveting to bizarre to repellent to riveting again. It’s called Phaedra(s), and the reason to see this alternately electrifying and enervating evening is to watch Isabelle Huppert (63) – a goddess of cinema and stage herself – in three radically different interpretations of the title role.
Led by her fearless director, Krzysztof Warlikowski, Huppert (who rarely leaves the stage for three and a half hours) goes where angels fear to tread. As he puts it, “she’s willing to commit transgressions on stage without blinking an eye.” He sets the stage for these three tales on Malgorzata Szczesniak’s antiseptic, institutional set, with white walls and metal doors. Supported by an able ensemble, musician, and exotic dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero), three desperate tales of desire and carnage play out on the floor and upstage projections.
We first meet Huppert’s Phaedra in the evening’s Part I – a version of the myth by Wajdi Mouawad (based on texts of Euripides and Seneca). Initially, she appears as a sex-starved Aphrodite in fur coat, high heels, and porn-star-style blond wig. “I am the desire of the world”, she proclaims, as she strips to a scant silver slip and morphs into a love-sick Phaedra who crawls across the floor, writhing in an agony of unfulfilled desire, howling “J’aime” (it’s a French language production). Ultimately, she beds the beautiful young Hippolytus (shown on an upstage screen), before disemboweling him (not shown, thankfully) and then hanging herself. “How can there be so much force in such a small body?!” she describes herself, while we marvel at this actress’s amazing lack of inhibition.
Part II shifts radically in tone. A modern, glass-enclosed living room rolls onstage, where Sarah Kane’s icy version of the terrible tale plays out. Phaedra is now a robotic royal in an auburn wig and contemporary garb, while Hippolytus (Andrzej Chyra) is a slothful adolescent who sits in a pile of empty chips bags and unwashed laundry, watching the shower scene from Psycho over and over on a jumbo screen. Indifferently, he acquiesces to being fellated by his supplicating step-mother – then declares his preference for his half-sister Strophe (Phaedra’s daughter, played by Agata Buzek). “Why do you hate me?” asks the humiliated Phaedra. “Because you hate yourself,” explains Hippolytus, nonchalantly.
At this point in the evening, one might cry “uncle!” After all, “theatre of cruelty”, as Peter Brook calls this theatrical genre, is a demanding, often punishing experience. All the more reason, then, to admire director Warlikowski, who astonishes us in Part III with a droll satire on the whole evening’s effort. In it, Huppert plays Elizabeth Costello, a French professor (from J.M. Coetzee’s eponymous novella) who is delivering a lecture on the gods and eroticism. “The gods don’t feel – we mortals do,” she posits. Questioned by a moderator, she theorizes how the gods might envy our human capacity for sexual ecstasy, and imagines how copulation between gods and mortals might actually work. Huppert’s caricature of an academic is hilarious, and her send-up of the entire evening and its subject matter allows us to sit back and put it all in the context of “the human comedy”. At one point, she actually shifts into the actual text of Racine’s Phèdre, making us long to hear that 1677 classic once again.
At the end, Huppert poses a question directly to her stunned audience: “Does it suffice to have these visions…. before the rain falls?” she asks. It’s a kind of apology, as well as an explanation, for an evening that begins as a shocker and ends as a unique, thought-provoking theatrical experience.
Phaedra(s), after Sarah Kane, Wajdi Mouawad, and J. M. Coetzee, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, an Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe production, at Brooklyn Academy of Music through Sunday, September 18.