“There is no greater sorrow
Than to be mindful of the happy time
– Dante Alighieri, “Inferno”, The Divine Comedy
Where would society be without a pair of rose-tinted glasses? Be it 30-year-old cartoons turned into multi-hundred-million-dollar movies or Aaron Sorkin fetishizing the days when men (only men) made the great inventions and democratic strides we now take for granted. Hell, the Orange Menace now occupying the White House campaigned with a slogan that could have easily been switched out with Sorkin’s (in)famous “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore.”
The United States in the 1950s tends to be a recurring focal point to those want our country to return to a better time. There was no world war asking everyone to conserve and pitch in, like in the ‘40s; and those pesky women, Blacks, and… well, everyone else “knew their place” and weren’t crying about their rights, like in the ‘60s. No, the ‘50s were when the White Man could enjoy the fact that he lived in the richest country in the world. Nevermind the details that led to that abundance: women and Blacks pitching in at home during the war; the Red Scare forcing citizens of the ‘50s into a paranoid state of conformity; or the fact that the country was so rich was because under Republican president Dwight Eisnenhower the richest people in the country (captains of industry like the Du Ponts and Rockefellers) had to give up to 91% of their earnings in taxes, but still lived like kings.
It’s this era of “The Fabulous ‘50s” into which director Ariel Craft has chosen to turn one of the decade’s most famous stereotypes, the ‘50s mom, on its head. And she’s doing it with Jean Racine’s take on one of western literature’s most infamous mothers: Phèdre. Because if you’re going to dismantle an old trope, why not do it through Greek tragedy?
The kingdom of Troezen has just received the news that King Theseus has been killed. His son, Hippolytus, vows to find the father he believes to still be alive. But that isn’t the only reason he wants to leave although his heart belongs to the young Aricia, his passion burns for his own step-mother, Phèdre. Further complicating matters, the half-mad (and isatiable) Phèdre feels the same way, despite the fact that she knows it won’t end well for either.
With the fate of the throne at stake, can Phèdre and Hippolytus resist their own burning desires, or is Phèdre’s “curse” as inevitable as the setting of the sun?
In a way, the taboo at the center of the story of Phèdre has become less of a taboo of late. Between films like The Graduate and American Pie to even tv shows like Dawson’s Creek, we’re taught to think that a younger man “earning his manhood” by sleeping with an older woman is considered a rite of passage, whilst the opposite is considered a perversion – no matter how many older men actually do use younger women as status symbols. Since Phèdre and Hippolytus have no connection by blood (although that, too, is sadly becoming less taboo), we’re meant to think it’s less a tragedy that the young man lusts after an older woman, but moreso that he would usurp his own father.
Racine’s version – wonderfully translated here by Cutting Ball’s former Artistic Director Rob Melrose – and Craft’s direction succeed by keeping both the tragedy and its inevitability front-and-center. They also give the agency to Phèdre. She doesn’t exist purely for the objectification of a young man, she’s the one who actively pursues him, despite knowing the consequences. Even if she didn’t have a hex hanging over her, she’d know that the quasi-incestuous nature of her lust was wrong. But her characterization here goes directly against the idea of the ‘50s mom as a sexless glorified housemaid who seemed to produced babies through osmosis. (Yeah, yeah, I know: Peyton Place did it first – so what?)
And it’s not as if she isn’t warned at every possible instance. Part of the fun of this version is watching how the three main characters – Phèdre (Courtney Walsh), Hippolytus (Ed Berkeley), and Aricia (Cecily Schmidt) – respond to the counsel of their closest advisors – Oenone (Karen Offereins), Theramene (Brennan Pickman-Thoon), and Ismene (Maria Leigh, filling in this night for Neiry Rojo). As much as I intentionally avoid critiquing actors with whom I’ve regularly worked, I’d be remiss not to mention Karen Offereins as Oenone, the Jiminy Cricket on Phèdre’s shoulder. The quiet dignity and heartbreak she shows as she watches her mistress unravel is the highlight performance of the entire show. Courtney Walsh’s Phèdre is almost all highs, which often lacks a solid grounding to make her truly relatable. A bit more variation would have worked wonders.
The last time I saw Ed Berkeley was as the transforming man-animal in FaultLine’s Where All the Good Rabbits Go. His Hippolytus is effective, but not commanding. With his muscular build and square jaw, Berkeley would likely be the most watchable person on stage if his voice were as strong. Perhaps he was holding back to further show Hippolytus’ reluctance to embrace Phèdre? Immensely watchable is Brennan Pickman-Thoon’s Theramene. As the devilish equivalent to Onenone’s angel, Pickman-Thoon is clearly having a ball. Though not as strong during a tragic monologue at the end, he’s spot-on goading on his best friend into the bad idea of an affair. The youthful enthusiasm of Cecily Schmidt and the substituting Maria Leigh is infectious, though I couldn’t quite figure out why picnic-patterned poodle-skirts were so dirty?
In fact, I enjoyed the way costumer Brooke Jennings dressed Hippolytus as a preppie (with a straw hat that made him look like he was in a barbershop quartet) and Phèdre as a Hollywood starlet. Aside from the dirty skirts, the sword and dagger hilts for men tend to clash, but I see their necessity to the story. Nina Ball’s thrust stage set is divide diagonally, with the side representing the house having classical columns and the other side an arbor entrance to a garden. And, although I foolishly didn’t get a clear photo of it, a circular projection screen hangs above center-stage. That, combined with the way Craft gracefully stages the action, make for a wonderfully visual production. Add in some minimalist chiming sounds by Brian Hickey and the production fully succeeds technically.
People wiser than I have often said that the past is something to be visited, not lived in. Not only does the latter prevent you from see what’s great about the here and now, but thinking the past was nothing but ideal will blind you to its most destructive flaws. The past was great for what it was, but there was a lot of room to improve. Ariel Craft’s Cutting Ball production of Phèdre is a fine example of pulling back the curtain on an oft-idealized era in history and dramatizes it as funny, scary, optimistic, and heartbreaking. In a way, it’s a lot like today.
Phèdre runs until the 21st of May at EXIT on Taylor.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.