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Cutting Ball Theater’s Phèdre
2017-04-23
 

Phedre.jpg

 

Another strand in the web of family disorders    

The great classic of French theater, Racine’s Phèdre, opened last week at the Cutting Ball Theater with a new translation by Rob Melrose. With straightforward direction by Ariel Craft, the production delivers much to think about, much to be engaged with.

In case you are not familiar with this company, the theater is a small black box located on Taylor Street, on the edge of the Tenderloin in San Francisco. The company presents a diverse range of plays in productions that are stripped down but dramatically intriguing, but not so intriguing that they are a burden to watch. If you are fan of stagecraft, it’s worth checking out this theater’s offerings throughout the season.

Racine’s Phèdre is based on the Greek tragedies by Euripides and Seneca, and its story became part of the web of familial sexual complexes woven by Freud.

Phèdre, the queen of Athens, alone during her husband Theseus’ latest six-month tour of conquest, develops an illicit and consuming passion for her stepson, Hippolytus (Ed Berkeley). Hippolytus in turn is in love with Aricia (Cecily Schmidt), the sole survivor of the royal house vanquished and supplanted by Theseus. Rumor has it that Theseus is dead and Phèdre, following the advice of her nurse and confidante Oenone (Karen Offereins), seizes this as the opportunity to fulfill her aching desires and marry her stepson. The play takes place at the crucial moment when a very lively Theseus (Kenneth Heaton) returns to Athens to find his wife panting over his son and his son caught between unspeakable loves.

Courtney Walsh, who plays Phèdre, does an impressive job as the half-crazed-with-lust queen. She rationalizes, writhes, throws herself on the ground and is convincingly a woman driven mad by her untenable sexual desire. A queen whose virtue has collapsed by the infidelity of her interior and physical longing.           

The original 17th-century play was written in alexandrines, a 12-syllable line with a pause in the middle, and the preferred poetic line for several centuries in France. Melrose, who was one of the co-founders of the Cutting Ball Theater, uses a long free verse line and the effect is contemporary and speech-like, allowing adequate expression to the psychological intricacies of the play.

Perhaps the least convincing aspect of the play was putting it in ’50s (sort of) dress. This was part of Director Craft’s spin on Phèdre as a woman trapped in the unbearable situation of being powerless and beholden to the conventions of patriarchy. But Phèdre is not really a ’50s housewife, and although she is in a strictured role she is nonetheless a queen, and the dimensions of her instability clearly lie within her personality: “a lust so black.” Though, admittedly, royalty is always a little wonky, as the current British royal family has proven over and over. In any event, I always find it difficult to imagine guys in sweaters carrying swords. 

Even so, this is a compelling production, wonderfully acted and effectively directed. The minimalist but dramatic sets by Nina Ball centered on a single arched doorway in the midst of the void of the black box theater. Lighting was by Nick Kumamoto. Costumes by Brooke Jennings.

– Jaime Robles

 

 

Phèdre continues through May 21 at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco. For information and tickets, visit cuttingball.com.

Photo: Phèdre (Courtney Walsh) confronts her stepson Hippolytus (Ed Berkeley). Photo by Liz Olson.

 
     
   
 
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