Phaedra(s)

I set off a smoke detector as I left the Brooklyn Academy of Music last night, but it was not because I was smoking. It was because of the hot mess of passion Aphrodite stirred up in the poor Phaedras – all three of them — played with a sizzling ferociousness by the inimitable French actress, Isabelle Huppert, as part of the BAM 2016 Next Wave Festival. Phaedra(s), presented by Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe was not without its flaws, however. This was a clever modern take on the extraordinary Greek myth, but it came off as grating rather than edgy. The problem I am having is pin-pointing exactly what it was that made it feel that way, because overall it was an interesting evening of theater and I am glad I attended. It was not the acting, which was excellent. It might have been the difficulty following the story line, although the program notes did explain the “three Phaedras” plot idea. It was not the rapid-fire French with surtitles. (I loved that it was in French, which was one of my majors, although it didn’t help me me much when the passionate speech was spat out like rounds of bullets!) The staging was often clever — especially the room within a room that contained the most searing of the scenes between Phaedra and her stepson/object of desire, Hippolytus. Perhaps it was a bit too long, and perhaps it was a bit too tawdry. There was so much explicit sexual content that it lost its power to shock, and became more of an irritant. Yes, this particular Greek tragedy is about desire in its extreme, but this hyper-sexualized version made it seem cheap, rather than the intense physical and psychological conflict that it really is. I must not have been alone in my reaction to the play, because a large amount of people in the balcony left at intermission. I wish they had stayed the extra hour, because Isabelle Huppert was hilariously brilliant as lecturer Elizabeth Costello. Honestly, it was the opportunity to witness her versatility as an actress that made the whole evening worth it.

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