Review: A new translation of Racine’s ‘Phèdre’ at Cutting Ball (****)

by Charles Kruger

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The Cutting Ball Theater, which specializes in the avante garde, has a wonderful way with the classics, but rarely gives us what we expect.

Their recent (superb) production of Hedda Gabler, for example, was played as a comedy. Their wonderful production of Ubu Roi of a few years ago was set mostly in a kitchen.

With Phèdre, we are not surprised to see Jean Racine’s retelling of the Greek tragedy imaginatively set in the deceptively pure 1950s, though with curious anomalies such as Hippolytus’s sword, worn with a goofy boating outfit.

For those not in the know, Hippolytus is Phèdre’s beautiful stepson who, for all his extraordinary sex appeal, seems uninterested in love. That doesn’t stop Phèdre from being stricken by lust for the boy, especially since her husband is away and presumed dead. This is a Greek tragedy. You know it will end badly.

Although this production has many comic moments, playing upon the extremity of emotion that at times makes Phèdre’s condition seem a bit laughable, it never loses sight of the deeper story: how it is that passion can overwhelm a person and take over the will.

Phèdre tries to resist, but feels herself in the power of the Goddess Venus who treats her like a rag doll. In an interesting acting device, typical of Cutting Ball’s emphasis on physical theatre, Courtney Walsh as Phèdre characterizes the influence of Venus with one of her hands which often seems to act independently of Phèdre’s will.  This interesting performance brings to life the classic metaphor of the heroine as a puppet of the gods.

In other ways, the production shows off Cutting Ball’s avant garde chops, including the simple but subtle set by Nina Ball, the lighting design by Nick Kumamoto that places Phèdre in a revealing glare, and the witty and sexy costumes designed by Brooke Jennings.

For most of the evening, the look and feel of the play seems to be vaguely in the style of a ’50s TV sitcom, although a peculiar one. But as the plot thickens and the tragedy becomes clearly inevitable, the performances deepen and finally move us greatly. This final result is helped enormously by a striking performance by Kenneth Heaton as Theseus, the presumed dead husband who returns unexpectedly to discover the unspeakable. What seemed almost humorous in his absence becomes, with the gravity of Heaton’s performance, shocking, as we experience the situation through his eyes.

The gradual transition from relative lightheartedness to the full-throated cry of Racine’s tragedy is handled well by director Ariel Craft and the very capable cast. Ed Berkeley, making his Cutting Ball debut, is an excellent Hippolytus. Also remarkable is Brennan Pickman-Thoon as Hippolytus’s side-kick Theramene. Pickman-Thoon does a fine job of speaking the text in a fully natural way. In smaller roles, Karen Offereins, Cecily Schmidt, Neiry Rojo, and Emily Radosevich offer skilled support.

Speaking of the text, Rob Melrose’s new translation is excellent, nicely rhythmic and emotionally true. His occasional incorporation of rhymed couplets is subtle and does a fine job of evoking Racine’s classical style.

So, with all this excellence is there anything to question? Well, it may be debated whether this production is entirely true to Racine’s vision. For example, there is little emphasis given to Hippolytus’s prideful disregard for Venus, and Phèdre is a few years older than the script seems to indicate. Were she a young bride, perhaps only half a decade older than her stepson, the dynamic would be different.

But that is a quibble. With excellent acting, a gorgeous translation, and fine production values, this Phèdre should appeal to Cutting Ball’s audience, who appreciate avante garde takes on classic works.

“Phèdre” plays at The Exit Theatre through May 21. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“Phèdre,” by Jean Racine, translated by Ariel Craft, produced by  Cutting Ball Theater.

Creative Team:

Director: Ariel Craft. Scenic Designer: Nina Ball. Lighting Designer: Nick Kurnamoto. Sound Designer: Brian Hickey. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings. Combat Consultant: Will Springhorn, Jr.

Cast:

Phèdre: Courtney Walsh. Oeone: Karen Offereins. Hippolytus: Ed Berkeley. Aricia: Cecily Schmidt. Theseus: Kenneth Heston. Theramene: Brennan Pickman-Thoon. Ismene: Maria Leigh (understudy at this performance). Panope: Emily Radosevich.

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