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Vol. LXV, No. 43
Wednesday, October 26, 2011
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Music/Theater

WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?: Phaedra (Stephanie Roth Haberle, on the chaise lounge) is tormented by visits from her half brother the Minotaur (Julio Monge) who brings up memories from her past. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Backwards and Forwards, From Ancient Myth to Modern World,“Phaedra Backwards” Weaves a Web of Intense Family Tragedy

Donald Gilpin

Thought your family was dysfunctional? Phaedra Backwards, Irish playwright Marina Carr’s poetically crafted, stunningly designed new exploration of the tragic story of Phaedra, daughter of Minos and wife of Theseus, is guaranteed to make you thankful for even the most odious of your own relatives.

It’s a rich tale that provides Ms. Carr, previously represented at McCarter in productions of The Mai (1996) and Portia Coughlan (1999), with the inspiration to fill in the gaps, answer the unanswered questions, create the back story to this saga, embodied most prominently in plays by Euripides (Hippolytus, 428 B.C.), Seneca the Younger (first century A.D.) and Racine (1677).

It’s a story of past and present. As the opening projection on the back wall cyclorama states, the time is, “Now and then. Then and now. Always.” Some characters dress and behave in contemporary style, others in mythic, ancient or undefined mode. Phaedra Backwards is the story of Phaedra’s struggle to escape from her family’s lust-filled, violent past. As director Emily Mann explains, “Marina delves into Phaedra’s fractured past to make sense of her crumbling present.” The tale is 3,000 years old, but the modern references resonate powerfully in this timeless panorama of love and passion, of fury and vengeance.

William Faulkner, who also drew his share of source material from mythology, once wrote that “the past is never dead. It is always present.” At a point in Phaedra Backwards, as the climax approaches and Phaedra is besieged by the angry ghosts of her family — most notably her brother the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull, she laments, “Are all the graves open tonight?” and she is answered by her sister Ariadne, ”They’re always open.”

Rachel Hauck’s set design, on a stone terrace at Theseus and Phaedra’s palace by the sea with only a worn dining table and a chaise lounge for furniture, appropriately situates the entire play on a cliff, jutting out into the first four rows of the theater. Phaedra is clearly, literally and figuratively, on the edge of a precipice. She is a middle-aged woman in a troubled marriage with the arrogant, philandering Theseus. She flirts sensuously with her stepson, Theseus’s son Hippolytus, using their reciprocal attraction to taunt her husband. Most significantly, in Ms. Carr’s version of the story, Phaedra is haunted with increasing intensity throughout the play by her angry half-brother the Minotaur, who was killed years earlier by Theseus.

The play opens near the end of the story as Phaedra (Stephanie Roth Haberle) hears the news of Hippolytus’ death. The narrative then moves “backwards” in time to present both the days leading to Hippolytus’ banishment by Theseus (Randall Newsome), with Phaedra in complicity, and the more distant past of Phaedra’s parents, King Minos (Sean Haberle) and Queen Pasiphae (Angel Desai); Pasiphae’s lust for a white bull and her sly scheme to consummate that lust; the shocking birth of the Minotaur (Julio Monge) and Minos’s wrathful, murderous response; Phaedra’s sister Ariadne’s alliance with Theseus, betraying her brother, who is murdered by Theseus; Theseus’s rejection of Ariadne (Mariann Mayberry), who kills herself, and his subsequent liaison with Phaedra at her sister’s funeral ceremony.

Ms. Haberle presides over the sordid proceedings with impressive poise and majesty. She moves back and forth from the mythic world of the Minotaur and the wicked legacy of her past to the contemporary world of her very modern life with her boorish husband, their young daughter (Elsa Rodriguez), his stepson Hippolytus (Jake Silbermann) and Hippolytus’s girlfriend Aricia (Julienne Hanzelka Kim).

Dressed stylishly in striking, black or bright red, this Phaedra is sensuous, seductive, and relentlessly acerbic, angry in bearing the burden of her family legacy and her cynical marriage. During the course of the play Phaedra pays a huge price for her sins and the sins of her forbears, but she does so with dignity and a brave commitment to endure whatever it takes to confront and exorcise the ghosts of the past. Ms. Haberle brings this character to life powerfully here with all Phaedra’s inner and outer demons vividly manifest.

The entire cast of ten adults, plus four minor children’s roles, is excellent — well rehearsed, in character and expressive. Production values are first rate, and Ms. Mann brings it all together with clarity, definition, focus, and ominously swift pacing — a mere ninety minutes from start to finish without intermission.

McCarter Theatre commissioned this play and its world premiere production, and Ms. Carr has been working on it for several years, including two play development workshops at McCarter earlier this year. Painstaking care and expense are apparent in the impressive set; the colorful, striking costumes by Anita Yavich; the nuanced, ever-changing lighting by Jeff Croiter; the original music and sound design, evoking the sea or Phaedra or the Minotaur, by Mark Bennett; and projections, film, and images designed by Peter Nigrini to reflect Phaedra’s past.

The visual and auditory imagery here of Phaedra and her world is unforgettable. Phaedra Backwards is an inspired artistic creation, but a challenging one for audiences. Despite poetic beauty in the language and a certain nobility in Phaedra’s struggles with her plight, it’s an ugly story, and the telling of it here is graphic and often harsh. Violence and sexuality predominate in the language and the actions of the characters.

None of these characters is easy to like — neither the caustic Phaedra, nor Theseus, nor Hippolytus, nor the Minotaur, who despite his tail, horns, and bull-like demeanor is more sympathetic and less base and animalistic than most of the rest of this contemptible crew.

Also problematic for audiences may be the sometimes curious mix of tones, as the tragic grandeur of the mythic past intrudes on the banality of what could pass for a shady, dysfunctional contemporary family drama. The conflicting worlds reflect the tensions in Phaedra’s mind, but at times the incongruities create an almost comical disparity, and the actors’ jarring tones might almost be delivering two different plays.

Mr. Monge’s athletic, acrobatic Minotaur, for example, the most insistent and conspicuous emissary from the mythic past, creates a menacing, remarkable presence, both onstage and in the mind of Phaedra. At times, however, the threatening gestures and grimaces, the overt physicality with trademark pelvic thrusts are more melodramatic than profound.

The pleasures and rewards of Phaedra Backwards require audiences to appreciate the varied hues of this rich dark fairytale, to embrace the mystery of this vivid reflection of some of the most unappealing facets of human nature. In Phaedra Backwards, Ms. Carr, Ms. Mann, Ms. Haberle, and company take us to this strange world, Phaedra’s world but also our world, for ninety minutes of stunning drama.

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