Last week was a week of theatrical mothers for me, since I went to Lucrezia Borgia at the opera on Monday and then Adam Bock’s contemporary update of Phaedra at Shotgun Players on Thursday. Then I came down with a sudden and ferocious cold, which left as rapidly as it arrived, like a summer thunderstorm (if you live in an area that gets those), but not before I missed Thomas Ades twice, at Cal Performances and the Symphony, so too bad for me.
Shotgun’s ticket prices are very low (about $20) and they now have 7:00 start times on Thursdays (still 8:00 on some nights, for those who prefer that), which I love since I am less and less inclined to waste three hours after work waiting for a show to start, and now it’s easier to take a chance on a theatrical evening. Well, Phaedra is a known quantity, but not in this particular adaptation. Another thing that’s great about Shotgun: when you show up, the house manager shows you what seats are available and you pick one, so there’s no annoying scrum for unassigned seats.
I had wanted to see the Phaedra anyway, partly because I had seen and liked two other plays by Adam Bock (both at Shotgun: The Typographer’s Dream and The Shaker Chair) and partly because a mostly dull production of Racine’s play at ACT last year* had left me wondering if maybe the story of the lustful lying stepmother had simply lost its punch in an age of reality TV. It hasn’t.
A huge amount of credit goes to the power-house work of the consistently fine cast: Cindy Im as Taylor (Aricia), Trish Mulholland as Olibia (Oenone, the maid), Keith Burkland as Antonio (Theseus), Patrick Alparone as Paulie (Hippolytus), and especially Catherine Castellanos as Catherine (Phaedra), who maintained the remarkably fine balance between repugnant and desperately sympathetic. There was something in the way she moved off in the finale, dragging her scarf, that told me she was going to hang herself with it, and when we saw the silhouette of a hanged woman there were gasps in the audience, even from the chatty girl two rows behind me who had ten minutes earlier muttered that Catherine was a hellacious bitch. (The only one of the actors whose name rang a bell with me was Alparone, whom I had seen as a solid Hamlet in an otherwise abysmal production several years ago.)
There were a lot of students in the audience. One of them, a very nice young biology student from Afghanistan, came up to me in the lobby when we were waiting for the house to open, when there were only a couple of other people, and asked me if I knew the story and if so could I explain it to him and his fellow student. So I told him I wasn’t sure how much of the story had been changed, but – and I gave him a summary of Racine’s version. I was a little concerned about spoilers, until I realized that’s what he wanted: he said he’d be able to enjoy the play more if he knew what was happening. I guess knowing the story freed him to concentrate on other aspects rather than on the basic question of what was going on.
So I included Phaedre’s rape allegation (which I’m happy to say Bock has transferred back to Phaedra, whereas in Racine she is merely complicit in allowing the scheming maid to make the charge). It turned out the student was sitting next to me, and indeed the play seemed to gain in power for him because he knew what was going to happen. It made me ponder once again the importance of how much we know about something going in; there’s definitely knowing too much, but there’s also knowing too little; after all, we have to know something, don’t we, or otherwise why would we choose one show over another?
I had nothing but admiration for the performances and the direction (by Rose Riordan). The late-night scene when Catherine confesses her love to Paulie and is rejected, and then the subsequent day when she falsely accuses him of rape, are particularly gut-wrenching and indelible. And on the whole I really admired Bock’s treatment, which very deftly updates the story while retaining a surprising number of traditional elements, even to the vivid description of Hippolytus’s mangled body and violent death (as the seventeenth-century poet Francis Quarles put it, “Hippolitus, who scorned incestuous sports, / Was torn with horses, as his name imports”; here his death comes with tragic wittiness in a car accident in a Mustang).
Paulie’s beloved is no longer a virginal princess, but a girl he met in rehab, who is a bit abrasive but also appealingly direct. She is still the daughter of an enemy, though; her father is a labor lawyer, and Antonio is a right-wing judge. The maid Olibia is cheerful rather than scheming, always chattering and trying to feed everyone, to an extent they sometimes find irritating.
In Racine, Theseus is a notorious philanderer, which lends an interesting texture to his wife’s desperate love for his son, and to the son’s reputation as a haughty enemy of love. I didn’t like that Bock made Antonio a right-wing hack. At the very opening he denounces giving more money to public schools: the audience here is people near Berkeley who go to live theater, so obviously Antonio is condemned in our eyes from the get-go. Catherine disagrees with him – OK, so they don’t get along all that well, but isn’t there a way to show that which won’t slam shut the audience's potential sympathy for him? Antonio has no arguments in favor of any of his positions, not that I can imagine what they would be, which is one reason I’d like to hear some.
I’m all in favor of ridiculing right-wing hacks, but this just seemed like an overly easy way to get the audience to write him off. But why the need to reduce the character in that way? The intention may be to justify Phaedra’s love for the son who seems like a younger version of the man she fell in love with, but Phaedra’s love is not meant to be justifiable or easily explicable – that’s why it’s dramatically interesting and powerful. Also, if her husband is such a buffoon, and if she disagrees so deeply with his idiotic views (and they do seem to be his main topic of conversation, not an easily overlooked sideline), and she doesn't even love him much, you have to wonder why Phaedra sticks with him: the obvious answer is status and money, but that implicit issue is not explored.
And why the need to make Paulie a recovering drug addict, instead of a contemporary version of proud and puritanical Hippolytus? Paulie is in therapy, but his language is oddly free of the therapeutic, 12-step language people in recovery tend to use; there’s also a kind of pure-spirited, essentially innocent honesty about him, which struck me as slightly sentimental, given how prone drug addicts and recovering drug addicts are to lying and self-justification. I have no fault to find with either Burkland’s or Alparone’s portrayal, but I’m wondering why Bock felt that the major change he had to make in the story was to damage and weaken the two men.
Phaedra runs through October 23 at the Ashby Stage (right by the Ashby BART station); click here for tickets, because you should go see it if you can.
* I've linked to what I wrote at (or near) the time, but in each case it's a combo review and the part that I'm referencing is about halfway down.