Phedre. Drama. Written by Jean Racine. Translated by Rob Melrose. Directed by Ariel Craft. Cutting Ball Theatre, The Exit on Taylor, 277 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.
Jean Racine’s classical Greek tragedy Phaèdre is given a fresh feminist examination in Artistic Director Ariel Craft’s look at familial dysfunction and the conflicted female archetype. Based on Euripides’ Hippolytus, Racine changed the focus onto Phaèdre, the deeply troubled and tragic stepmother. Craft sets her production with the aesthetics of the 1950’s, to highlight the rigid expectations women faced. Phèdre, while a queen, is trapped by her circumstances as wife and mother. When she does act upon her impulses, a virtue common among the male characters, she is doomed to misfortune.
When Phèdre makes her entrance in her pink halter cocktail dress with a beaded bodice, pink gloves, pink heels and dark sunglasses, she’s a mess. Distraught with the false news of her husband’s demise and probable accession problems, Phèdre becomes overwhelmed with desire for her stepson Hippolytus, whom she had exiled. She uses her faithful servant Oenone (Karen Offeriens) to plot her intrigues which, true to Greek tragedy, end badly. Hippolytus is madly in love with the banished Aricia (Cecily Schmidt) and rejects Phèdre, Theseus returns from the dead and Phèdre is trapped by her own doings. Lying to her husband, she accuses he stepson of being the aggressor and Theseus condemns him to a horrible death. Phèdre turns on Oenone and she kills herself. Aricia intercedes to Theseus on Hippolytus’ behalf, but it’s too late, Hippolytus is smashed to bits. Phèdre’s deceptions are revealed and she commits suicide.
The acting is top notch. As the nervous suitor caught up in his stepmother’s treachery, Ed Berkeley (Where All Good Rabbits Go) exudes the excitement of new love combined with his desire for adventure and fame. Brennan Pickman-Thoon (Julius Caesar, The Lion in Winter) is excellent as Hippolytus’ trusted childhood friend Theramene. Cicely Schmidt (20th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) has a nice turn as the romanced Aricia, both childlike and strident. Making her Cutting Ball debut as Oenone, Karen Offereins is subservient and protective of her Queen. Kenneth Heaton as Theseus, Maria Leigh as Ismene and Emily Radosevich as Panope round out this excellent ensemble.
Courtney Walsh (Seared, Native Son, Romeo and Juliet) is fantastic as the mad Phedre, with her exaggerated mania and fatal emotional flaws. Her face twisted with raw emotions, her movements mimic a hunted animal surrounded by devouring predators. Costume designer Brooke Jennings has outfitted her in gorgeously regal satin; a royal gold, vintage 1950s Toreador pants with an over skirt, and an all-black mourning gown.
Nina Ball’s minimalist set design features a crisp white door frame and wooden window frames but no walls. A round overhead screen, on which serene images of the skies are projected, symbolizes the Gods, who are called upon for both protection and destruction. Lighting Designer Nick Kumamoto works wonders with the small space; using intense white light to highlight certain moments, then diffusing the lighting to illustrate Phedre’s aversion to the sun.
Phèdre is told in wonderful free verse by Rob Melrose’s beautiful translation of the original French alexandrine poetic verse. The result is a delicious Shakespearean sounding play with plot twists and machinations galore. This is the second production involving fresh perspectives on the female archetype, following on the footsteps of Cutting Ball’s groundbreaking Hedda Gabler. With this sparkling modern adaptation, Ariel Craft has placed her astute, feminist stamp on the legacy of Euripides’ Hippolytus and Racine’s 1677 Phaèdre.
Performances run through May 21st, 2017 www.cuttingball.com