Timeless, Challenging Phaedra Backwards
If you do not possess detailed scholarly knowledge of the mythological, classic antecedents of Phaedra Backwards, it will serve you well to refresh your knowledge of them and their themes before viewing this stunningly beautiful and passionately performed adaptation which director Emily Mann and the McCarter Theatre commissioned from Irish playwright Marina Carr whose plays have repeatedly been acclaimed at Dublin's Abbey Theatre and on London's main stages.
After the opening sequence, we are taken back to the beginning of the story through the thoughts of Phaedra. Her mother Pasiphae has fallen in love with a beautiful white bull and had an inventor create a hollow cow into which she secrets herself in order to join the herd and attract the bull. Their mating results in the birth of the part boy, part bull Minotaur. In a prologue, we have seen a filmed sequence projected on the rear stage wall in which Ariadne and Phaedra, the daughters of Pasiphae and Minos, romp around in an open field with the Minotaur. When he returns home from his journeys, Minos is outraged and repulsed by the Minotaur and kills him.
Then we move forward many years in time. Phaedra is married to her late sister Ariadne's womanizing husband Theseus. Phaedra engages Hippolytus and his girlfriend Aricia as well as Theseus in catty, sexually charged post-dinner chat . Phaedra and Hippolytus have the hots for one another, and Aricia is an also-ran in the carnal sweepstakes. The dead Minotaur appears, or at least appears to Phaedra.
And then it's back to Pasiphae, Minos, and the then still living Minotaur. Then there is a scene (which begins with the long dead Minotaur moving about Theseus in a physically threatening manner before leaving the stage) and continues with Theseus boasting to the Nanny of his myriad sexual relationships and attractiveness to woman and even underage schoolgirls. Phaedra enters, and enters into hate-filled exchange with Theseus during which she tells him that his son Hippolytus lusts after her.
Phaedra retreats into her past, conjuring up the boy Minotaur, Ariadne and Pasiphae. She dreams of going off into eternity with him. From here on, things get very complicated, as Phaedra sorts out the bloody and vengeance-filled relationships of her immediate family. Phaedra and her world are depicted as being brutalized victims of the egos, violence, cruelty, lust, and self centeredness of men. However, even Pasiphae participates in a vision of Phaedra being devoured, as Phaedra's mind slips wildly out on the edge and she contemplates her own death.
Phaedra Backwards is difficult to follow, and poses quite a challenge for the casual theatergoer. It will find its most satisfied audiences among those well versed in Greek mythology. Feminists who see war and other pestilences of their lives as the product of men's cruelty, lust for power, selfishness, shallow values and misrule will find themselves empathetic to Marina Carr's vision. However, it does provide the opportunity for Stephanie Roth Haberle to deliver a powerful performance of terrifyingly fierce intensity. All the scarred, fearsome and fearful women whom you have ever met in your life or on the stage are bound up together in her Phaedra. There is no over the top, out of control emoting here. What we have is pain and intensity which seems to arise from the very depth of her soul. Each of the large and talented cast members perform admirably (note well their names below), but Haberle's role and performance are so dominating that there is no room for any of the other performers to make make a strong, standout impression. This may be intentional in the scheme of things as the others are likely visualized extensions of what is going on in Phaedra's head.
Emily Mann's direction is as sharp and precise as a well cut diamond. Her integration of high definition video to depict Phaedra's memories of her childhood and her conversion of her memories to a fervid dream of her destiny is powerful and stunning. Perhaps her intimate knowledge of and identification with Marina Carr's play has made the need of Carr to better clarify its plotting and relationships indiscernible to her. Although the McCarter Matthews Theatre stage has been built out over the first several rows of the orchestra for this production, the large space and its acoustic limitations likely factor into the difficulty of following all the details of the play. High praise is due for the sumptuous work of set designer Rachel Hauck, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, and costume designer Anita Yavich.
McCarter has scheduled a pre-show discussion of Phaedra Backwards with members of the production artistic team to begin 45 minutes before each performance
Phaedra Backwards continues performances (Evenings Thursday 7:30 pm/ Friday and Saturday 8 pm: Matinees: Saturday 3 pm/ Sunday 2 pm) through November 6, 2011, at the McCarter Theatre Center (Matthews Theatre), 91 University Place, Princeton 08540. Box Office: 609-258-2787; online: www.mcarter.org.
Phaedra Backwards by Marina Carr; directed by Emily Mann