Vincent Katz reviews Phaedra(s) at BAM

  Vincent Katz (reviewer)

  Phaedra(s) at BAM Harvey Theater
  Thursday, September 15, 2016

  After J. M. Coetzee, Sarah Kane, and Wajdi Mouawad
  Directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski
  Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe

Note: BAM stands for the highly regarded
Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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Isabelle Huppert is perhaps the greatest dramatic performer of our time, particularly on stage. I can’t believe it was eleven years ago I saw her perform 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, also at BAM. That was a very different performance, a solo feat of endurance, for Isabelle and equally for the audience, who had to witness her enactment of unmitigated suffering.

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She tends to go for these extremely debased and / or debasing roles, as it allows her to show off her mesmerizing ability to enact extreme states without ever veering into excess. She is able to play these states so precisely.

Isabelle Huppert as Phaedra.


Tonight’s performance was of interest as it was based on the Greek myth of Phaedra and Hippolytos, treated most famously by Euripides in his Hippolytos and Racine in his Phèdre but also by the Roman playwright Seneca and others. The current piece is built on those but is written by three contemporary authors. It is the timelessly gripping story of Phaedra, the daughter of King Minos of Crete and sister of Ariadne. In Euripides’ version, Phaedra goes with the conqueror Theseus to be his Queen. However, on their return to Athens, he leaves her alone, serving a voluntary exile for having murdered another king.


Phaedra, alone in the palace, develops a passion for her stepson, Hippolytos. For his part, the youth is interested only in hunting. When he does not reciprocate her advances, she commits suicide, leaving a note saying that he raped her. Theseus returns, reads the note, and decides he must put his son to death, appealing to his father, Poseidon, for help. Eventually, Hippolytos rides out on his powerful steed, but a monster in the form of gigantic bull, sent by Poseidon, accosts them and frightens the horse, causing him to throw Hippolytos onto the rocks. As he is dying, his father begs his son’s forgiveness.


The first section of the current piece was written by Wajdi Mouawad, who was born in Lebanon and has lived in Paris and Montreal since leaving at the age of eight during the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s. This section starts as in a nightclub, or rather, an after-after-hours lounge, as a lone electric guitar accompanies a woman in high heels wailing into a microphone.


Eventually, Isabelle appears in a long blonde wig and mini-dress. She is Phaedra, delirious, eventually going into rants and screaming tirades about the boy. This scene went on too long. I did not like the dancer in thong and sparklies. She looked like the director’s nod to trans-as-fashion — a guy in drag or a manly-faced woman — which was fine, but her self-projection felt gratuitous, schemed for laughs.


The relationship between Phaedra and her nurse Oenone seemed promising. The production changed her from a nurse, as she is in Euripides, to a lover, or perhaps a nurse and lover, but after some attempts at connection, this thread was dropped. I found the character of the young man, Hippolytos, contrived to be too obviously doglike.

Isabelle Huppert as Phaedra (at wall) with nurse (seated)


The second section was written by Sarah Kane. Born in 1971 to Evangelical parents in Essex, England, Kane suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1999. Her death was a great tragedy, as she was one of the most electric British writers of her generation. As with the photographer Francesca Woodman, who also took her own life, one wonders what might have been. From my experience with 4.48 Psychosis, written shortly before Kane’s death, I was prepared to be witness again to extreme suffering.


On the contrary, this was the most elegant and successful part of the evening. Isabelle came out, dressed very properly, her red hair combed to the side, like a real, modern, bourgeois, royal. The set included a modern room that rolled onto the stage — an effective extension of physical and mental space. In this room, Phaedra encounters her stepson, who is a total wastrel. He does nothing, wants nothing. He has sex with random people, who want a piece of him because he is royalty. He prefers to play with his remote-controlled car that he sends zinging around his room’s periphery and occasionally into walls.


She pleads with him, begs, and finally gives him a brutal blowjob. He admits to having screwed Phaedra’s daughter, Strophe, and informs Phaedra that Strophe also banged Theseus. It is all incestuous and loveless. Only Phaedra elicits pity, as she feels the burn of passion, but she is ultimately debased as well.


The third act, written by J.M. Coetzee, was the most disappointing. [John Maxwell (J.M.) Coetzee is a South African novelist, essayist, linguist, translator and recipient of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Literature. He relocated to Australia in 2002 and lives in Adelaide. He became an Australian citizen in 2006. Wikipedia.] Whenever Isabelle was off the stage, the energy decreased visibly. Sometimes, the director would bring her on, in a scene she was not germane to, to sit in a corner and comment subliminally, just to give the scene a boost. The intermission came at an odd spot, in the middle of the second act. But taking what followed the intermission as the third act, it was a jumble.


First, Hippolytos admits to the rape, then gets blown by a priest. Okay. Next, his family watches him paraded to execution, with his sister splayed on the ground, her pink-pantied crotch in the audience’s face for the duration. Well, at least that was something to look at.


I was waiting for what the program described as the panel discussion part of the play, in which Isabelle plays an Australian author being interviewed about her new book. But when it came, the movie Frances (a biopic about the actress and television host Frances Farmer) was referenced, and I knew this would not end well. We know the movie. We know it is a tour-de-force performance by Jessica Lange. And we know that what it shows is horrible. But the director was hoping the audience didn’t know and that he could really disturb them. Referencing wasn’t enough, apparently. He decided he had to actually show an excerpt from the film. And that’s when I said, Enough, Already!


But I will always be back to see Isabelle. She is captivating in whatever role she takes on. I only wish she would take on the meat of the classical repertoire, not just the sound bytes, or work with someone who does have that depth of understanding. Then her unparalleled acting skills would be able to communicate a more profound connection.

US poet Vincent Katz, photo by Vivien Bittencourt.

Vincent Katz is a poet, translator, and critic. The author of the poetry collections Southness (Lunar Chandelier Press, 2016), Swimming Home (Nightboat Books, 2015), and the forthcoming Fantastic Caryatids, a collaboration with Anne Waldman, Katz lives in New York City and teaches at the Yale School of Art. Raphael Rubinstein has characterized Katz as ‘A 21st-century flâneur whose wanderings range from the sidewalks and subways of New York City to the crowded beaches of Rio de Janeiro.’


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