Tag Archives: Tragedy

Sleep No More at The Old Lincoln School (Punchdrunk Theater Co @ A.R.T)

The good news about writing a review of a performance long, long, long after you actually attended said performance is that, if it was a good one, it can be a real hedonistic rush to relive the highlights. Two days ago, when it occurred to me I was long overdue for a review of Sleep No More, the memories began, slowly, to dribble back into my active consciousness. And what a ride it has been. The uninhibited thrills I felt the night I went to Sleep No More in mid november ’09 are, to be fair, coming back as slightly-more-muted tingles and goosebumps now, but the impact of the show was so sensational that any opportunity to relieve even the smallest iota of it is brilliance is a privilege.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen: GO. SEE. SLEEP NO MORE. Period. End of sentence. It is a theatrical experience that must be experienced, and as much of a bitch it is to get up to Boston (especially if, like me, you’re not exactly in a financial position to see any performance on the east coast at the drop of a hat), if you have the means, do it. I will attempt to describe my unforgettable night at the Old Lincoln School in the subsequent paragraphs, but the show is so amazingly individual-audience-member focused, and so fantastically unique, that I know already I’m engaging in a losing venture. There is, quite simply, NO WAY I can adequately do justice to Sleep No More in writing. I will do my damndest, but I know I’m going to be disappointed. It was that good. And that special.

Where to start? Sleep No More is a theatrical installation which follows a nontraditional theatrical structure. The Old Lincoln School, a humongous abandoned school in Boston, comprises the set, and the audience is invited to explore at their will. There are no seats, no programs, no acts, no intermissions. According to the A.R.T. website:

“The Old Lincoln School in Brookline, Massachusetts, has been exquisitely transformed into an installation of cinematic scenes that evoke the world of Macbeth. You, the audience, have the freedom to roam the environment and experience a sensory journey as you choose what to watch and where to go. Rediscover the childlike excitement of exploring the unknown in this unique theatrical adventure.”

The Macbeths have a friendly feast in Sleep No More

Based thematically on Macbeth and aesthetically on the films of Hitchcock, Sleep No More loosely follows the “story” of Macbeth, but don’t be surprised if, after your own three hours inside the performance, you couldn’t identify a single actor with the Macbeth character they were meant to represent. And don’t be surprised if despite absorbing not an ounce of  “story”, you enjoy the performance more than any narrative-focused piece you see this year. (And you know that got to be hard for me, the narrative-lover that I am, to admit). As I’ll explain, for the first half of the show, I had no idea what the fuck was going on. And that was OK, you ask? Yes, yes it was. Let me go ahead and walk you through my own experience at Sleep No More:

The show had three entrance times for audience – 7, 7:20 and 7:40. Not understanding what this meant, we – my mom (who once again gamely accompanied me) and I — selected the 7:40 entrance time, not realizing that that simply meant we entered an ongoing show 40 minutes in, and thus got 40 less minutes to experience the performance than those lucky 7 pm ticket holders.

Regardless, we got to the venue (and what a huge one it was!) at 7:40 pm, and were escorted in to a completely decked out, totally sweet 1930s style bar. Our escorts informed us that the bar (called the Mandalay) was something of a “home base” during the show- somewhere you could always come back to if you needed a break or a breather. (Attempting to find it when you were wandering through the three (four?) floors of performance space that awaited you beyond its doors was the unstated catch, however). In batches, we were invited to follow a guide in to the show, through the murky, darkened hallway outside of the Mandalay’s cheerful doors. My group of 7 or so hesitantly followed our smarmy, self-satisfied guide to an elevator that was to take us deep into the heart of Sleep No More. (Hey, I couldn’t really blame him — I’d probably be way more than smarmy and self-satisfied if I had a gig working with the sweetest show on the East coast.)

As we hesitantly stood in the elevator, he passed us white harlequin masks and told us that not only did we have to put them on now, we also weren’t allowed to take the off during the show. Ever. Now, I can see what a brilliant strategy this was — not only did it help the actors and crew to immediately identify audience members, it also helped audience members do the same, and finally prevented audience from obtaining “this-is-awkward” reinforcement from each other. You know how it goes: you’re at a show or a performance that’s weird — and I mean really weird — and you instinctively feel the need to lock eyes with your fellow spectators, confirming with well-placed looks and widened eyes that yes, the show is weird. Not only does this distance you from the piece itself, it’s also an exercise in cowardice. How much braver to face a performance ON YOUR OWN, away from the reassurance of an equally confused audience member. During Sleep No More, it was frankly impossible to obtain that kind of refuge from your fellow spectators. After all, they were all wearing weird masks. I realize I’ve been harping on these masks for awhile, but I still can’t really get over how brilliant they were — they basically kept the audience in a paralyzing state of permanent powerlessness, isolated from each other and unable to do anything but stop, look, and listen.

Taking our last look around, exchanging the last comfortable “what the hell” glances that we could with each other, we slipped on our masks. At first it was MEGA embarrassing, but amazingly, everyone obeyed the “don’t take them off” rule and soon it became par for the course to stumble upon a fellow audience member wearing a mask. Without further ado, the elevator door opened and we were unceremoniously dumped into Sleep No More.

It is impossible to describe the scale to which the space was installed. It was mesmerizing, walking through the perfectly installed rooms, each and every one different from the rest, it’s own perfect, detailed little world. How many rooms were there? It was impossible to know — the installation was so overwhelming that even know I can’t recall if it was 3 or 4 floors. Some rooms were perfectly installed to look like they came out of a Hitchcock film — a 30s bedroom or a twilight-zone-esque hotel lobby. One was full of fresh pine trees and smoke. Another had woodchips on the floor and shelves full of flea-market perfect junk. One had a baby crib in the center, and suspended in midair above it had to have been dozens – maybe over 100 – suspended pieces of baby dolls. (Yes, I said pieces). One was installed to look like the perfect replica of an italian garden, complete with topiaries and rock paths. The school’s auditorium had dozens of extremely large pine trees on castors, which could be rolled around to create an eerie, witch-appropriate forest or pushed against the wall to accommodate spectators watching the action on the stage (the site of the Macbeth feast). One of the first rooms I went into was full of bathtubs – it was attached to an adjoining room that was decked out to look like an old-school dormitory. As I looked into each of the bathtubs I got the shock of my life to discover one had several live eels swimming around in it. How many rooms in total? I have no idea, and frankly can’t imagine I saw all of them. 40, maybe? I’d like to imagine there were hundreds, and if I had all night I could have just kept exploring them, passing from one to another. As one reviewer stated about the show “it was like you were caught up in someone else’s dream”, and had no choice but to hold on and enjoy — or at least, experience — the ride.

Of course, at the beginning of my time in Sleep No More (and really, it feels far more appropriate to say my time “in” Sleep No More than my time “at” Sleep No More) I didn’t feel any of this wonder. I was anxious and, after the eel incident, freaked out. But also, of course, I was lost and confused. The performers, dressed primarily in 30s garb and conveniently recognizable by their lack of masks, walked through the dominating space with purpose and entirely unconcerned whether they were entirely alone or followed by a throng of  30, 40, 50 spectators. True dedication to their character and a great performance ethic, certainly, but very inconvenient if you happen to be a spectator all the way in the back of the throng with an annoying need to know what’s going on at all times. (Recall my disastrous initial attempt to understand the play Fatebook: https://theaterjunkie.wordpress.com/2009/10/24/fatebook-at-area-919-2009-live-arts-festival/) Yes, that was me. Although the first 10 minutes of my time in the show were spent walking alone through the installation, the second an actor passed by (followed by probably 20 audience members tripping over their toes to keep on her trail), I was immediately seized with the urge – nay, need – to be in that throng, to know where she was going, to “get” the story.

I didn’t particularly get anywhere, however. The first actor I followed led me down some stairs before clashing with another actor, an interaction that I missed because of how far back in the crowd I was. (Did I mention that any eerie, quiet spell the the piece cast on my as I explored those first couple rooms pretty much dissipated when I was surrounded by dozens of equally eager and pushy audience members? So much for my private moment with the tub full of eels…)  I continued to follow this first actor, and caught a bit of her next clash with another actor — that was the moment I realized Sleep No More was more of a dance performance piece on the actors part than straight theater. Their interactions were entirely dance-based, no text or dramaturgy (goodbye, dream of being a writer for Punchdrunk…), and the actors, possessed of incredible dancer capabilities, acrobatically clashed into one another, composing duets with their bodies that loosely conveyed the story of Macbeth. Not that I appreciated any of that when I saw my first interaction. Instead, I struggled to understand, interpret. “Well, that’s probably Lady Macbeth and uhm…Duncan? A servant? No, definitely Duncan”, I decided. (Not that it should come as a surprise, but I learned later that I was entirely wrong).

I continued following my actor, convinced that I’d stumbled upon Lady Macbeth, the veritable motherlode as far as I was concerned. But it was crowded, and I kept being pushed to the back of the group, all of us silently vying for a prime viewing spot. I was hot, overwhelmed, and confused, and starting to suspect that maybe she wasn’t Lady Macbeth at all. The next time she passed a different actor with a slightly smaller following, I switched to him instead, visions of the Fatebook actors telling me to “pick one actor and stick with them!” dancing in my head, warning me of such a rash action.

My next actor didn’t particularly get me much farther, though, and I was beginning to get frustrated. I had no earthly idea WHO he was meant to represent, but when he landed in a room with several other actors (it was the first time I was in a room with more actors than audience) I thought something might be about to happen, and my interest was re-piqued. This room did not disappoint; there was a big brawl between the characters in the midst of their cardgame, and I was convinced at least one of them had to be Macbeth. If I could only figure out who, I’d have the right character to follow when they eventually left the room…as the fight broke up, (it was as beautifully choreographed and effortlessly danced by those amazing physical actors as anything I saw that night), I hedged my bets with one of the actors and was prepared to follow my newly christened Macbeth when something caught my eye. The room, by this point, had rather filled up with audience, but the actor playing a servant, standing at the bar wiping a glass, was staring directly at me. Me.

And I don’t just mean casually staring at me; this servant was giving me a hard-core glare. I felt like I’d never been more startled or thrilled in my life — in the midst of the chaos of actors and audience stuffed into this tiny room, this one servant-actor had made a visual once-over of the room and landed on yours truly. I couldn’t look away. Frankly, I couldn’t even move. I mean, I’ve had actor-audience interaction in my time (I’ve been on both sides of the coin, in fact), but this felt different, weirder. More urgent. I had no idea what was going to happen. I could only stare back. She cleaned her glass, the glare getting deeper. Finally, slowly, her arm began to raise, finger outstretched. She stood there, frozen, pointing at me. So, I did the only thing I could think of. I took a step back. Her arm lowered. She broke the eye contact, nodded a bit. I’d passed the test. I looked around. The room was empty.

And suddenly, it was OK that I’d missed my potential-Macbeth leaving. Because I’d gotten so much more. I’d gotten a kick ass thrill, but most importantly, I no longer cared if I even got one iota of “story” out of my night, or understood even remotely more than I did at that moment. I was excited, exhilerated. Fucking theater, man!

There’s so much more I could tell you about Sleep No More, including some really amazing almost-everyone-involved group feast scenes, but the moment that sticks out in my mind happened later. Armed with my new, see-what-I-feel-like-explore-what-I-want attitude, I wandered the rest of the installation and very, very rarely attempted to follow specific actors or the dozens of audience members trailing them. Instead, I went into rooms that looked interesting, and suddenly I began to find scenes coming to me. I opened the door to one room to find a very bedroom, filled with clothes, letters, and knickknacks. And, oh yeah, an actor. She started when I came in, looked up at me. I looked at her.

We were alone, and I had stumbled upon Lady Macbeth in the Macbeths’ bedroom. This time, I was sure. And not only that, this was a Lady Macbeth that was just a hop skip and a jump away from total madness, I could tell that too. I’m quite positive my presence didn’t help matters. Maybe it’s just because I’ve played Lady Macbeth, but I found myself seeing the room through her eyes more than my own. You think you’ve found a moment alone to attempt to interpret all the craziness going on in your life – you convinced your husband to commit murder, and the consequences have been both great and terrifying. The guilt is starting to creep in on you when suddenly the door to your bed opens and in walks — well, Jessie Bear, in a fucking terrifying mask. I suddenly cast myself in the show, as the ghost of Banquo or one of the drunken guards; a haunting, have-to-believe-its-not-real reminder of all the harm Lady M had caused. I could see through her eyes that’s what she saw me as, staring horrified as I walked closer to her, sinking into herself and reaching desperately towards me, in search of forgiveness, redemption, or maybe just acknowledgement.

Of course, I know that the actress playing Lady Macbeth was merely reacting to the cool circumstance of one audience member coming in to her space alone. If I had been with a group of people, or if no one had come in, she would have tailored her performance accordingly, but the urgency of the moment was so. goddamn. real that I just can’t help but feel like then, we were both really and truly there. And not there in the sense of the Old Lincoln School in Boston in November ’09, but there, in the Macbeth’s bedroom.

Macbeth entered after that, followed by dozens more spectators, and the couple proceeded to have a lustful, tragic dance as everyone watched. I watched, too, but I also took a deep breath, recovering from the intensity of my more private moment before. When the Macbeths dashed out of the room, I felt absolutely no need to follow them, opting instead to sit quietly on their bed. The rest of the audience high tailed it out of there to follow the fleeting, poetic narrative, and once again I found myself alone.

And that’s when it hit me: I was alone in the Macbeth’s bedroom. I apologize in advance for the profanities, but they’re necessary to convey the excitement that surged through me in that moment: I was alone in the motherfucking Macbeths motherfucking bedroom! And once again, it wasn’t a set and I wasn’t a spectator; it was real. It was really their bedroom and by some amazing metaphysical miracle I had been transported there. Again, maybe this is just because I played Lady Macbeth (if unsuccessfully), but for me this was a particularly significant moment. I felt the need to capture it, keep it. So, naturally, I stole something.

I’ve never stolen anything in my life, and hope never to do so again, but something came over me in that moment and the only way to assuage it (besides finding an unsuspecting actor and screaming in their faces, perhaps), was to attempt to clutch this magical space and time and never let go. There was an envelope on the ground, ripped open, with the words “Lady Macbeth” typewritten on the front. It had contained her “They met me in the day of success” note. I put it in my pocket. Sacrilegious? Probably. But somehow I feel the Macbeths would approve of sacrilegious. After all, they are the most notoriously evil couple in literature.

Sleep No More was a trip. It was thrilling and scary and beautiful and chaotic and breathtaking and electrifying and wondrous and overwhelming and frantic and exquisite and enchanting. And while I could sit here and continue to list synonyms for “thrilling” that I find on thesaurus.com, I realize that will in no way help to convey the experience. Plus, after a solid three thousand one hundred fifty six words (and counting) of this review, if by any miracle there is a single reader still with me, you deserve a break anyway.

And, just as I predicted, I am disappointed in my inability to convey with words even one iota of the experience I had seeing the show. But, just like really good theater, this one was all about the moment. (Plus it’s not like you can blame me: they didn’t have any words in the show, anyway.)

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THYESTES at the Arcola Theater

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Family love with Caryl Churchill

And now, for a breath of fresh air, another Greek play as done by the Brits. Interesting that Greek theater is neither my personal forte, nor is it something I find particularly compelling or accessible, and so far it dominates 100% of my blog posts. My apologies, but at the end of the day, the one theatrical rule that I ALWAYS live by is that if something has Caryl Churchill’s name attached to it, I will do everything in my power to experience it. Even if that means dragging my confused American self halfway across London on the day of a massive tube strike. Even if that means having to sit through 75 minutes of one of the most disturbing spectacles I’ve ever seen. Even if that means having to convince my mother that going with me to watch one [admittedly disturbed] man kill his nephews and feed their corpses to his unsuspecting brother is, indeed, worth her time. Because let’s face it: I’m a HUGE Caryl Churchill fan.

I can’t remember when I read my first Caryl Churchill play, but it has to have been Top Girls. Churchill is everything I aspire to be as a playwright: funny, concise, ruthless, accessible, urgent and relevant. I have the ultimate school girl crush on her, and believe without question that everything she touches turns to gold. I’ll admit that part of my secret desire to see Thyestes was the insane hope that I’d see her in the audience: didn’t happen. (That’s OK, though…because really, what would I have done? “Hi, Mrs. Churchill, just wanted to let you know that I worship the ground you walk on. Will you let me touch you?” – I’ve never been good at impromptu meetings with my idols.)

Churchill’s connection to this production of Thyestes was as translator/adaptor. My mom and I spent the first hour or so of our recent trip to London scanning some City Cultural Magazine which lists all theatrical productions currently playing. On a whim, I checked to see if there were any Churchill plays running, and was delighted to discover this one. Had I heard of the Arcola theater? No. Had I ever read/heard of Thyestes? No. Had I heard of Seneca? Well…I’d heard the name…once… Did any of this matter? No. If it was Caryl Churchill, I was going to go see it.

The Arcola theater oozed that particularly pretentious brand of hipster charm, tucked away in a completely un-touristy neighborhood of London and populated by artists and artistic-types who try really hard to look like they’re not trying too hard. (OK, that might have been a little harsh. One of these days I’m just going to have to suck it up and christen myself a hipster artist along with the rest of them…) The performance was devistatingly empty – I don’t think there could have been more of 20 of us in the audience, but it was a small space so the undercrowding of the house made less of an impact. I might describe my proximity to the performance space as “chillingly intimate”. Set up like an old, dark, wet, grimy warehouse storeroom, the set was inhabited with equal discomfort by unhappy gods or the unhappy damned that they tormented throughout the piece.

Here’s your barebones version of the story before I continue: The House of Atreus is hella-cursed. Grandpa Tantalus is living in hell being tormented by Hades, but he’s taken out of his torment for a minute by some fury/demon/god thing who wants to remind him that the rest of his issue are going to be as cursed and unhappy as him. Terrific. Meanwhile, his grandson Atreus is extremely pissed at his twin brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and potentially stealing his kingdom. I wish I could tell you Atreus is “cut-Thyestes-out-of-the-will” or “don’t-send-Thyestes-a-Christmas-card-this-year” pissed, but that just doesn’t make good Greek drama. Instead, Atreus is “secretly-trick-brother-into-coming-for-a-visit-then-when-he’s-not-paying-attention-steal-his-sons-kill-them-and-feed-them-to-Thyestes” pissed. Tragedy ensues.

If you can imagine, this play was even more disturbing than it’s description. The technical elements were immaculately executed – lights flickered and images that I could have SWORN were really happening became video projections right before my eyes. As the messenger, terrifically performed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, comes on to tell the chorus how Atreus has killed his young nephews,  the space seems to react with as much anger and horror as the chorus himself. The lights cut out, leaving a terrified Chorus to cry in the dark. Several television screens, stacked arbitrarily  in a corner of the space and seemingly non-functional suddenly illuminate to black and white static. As the messenger continues to talk, the black and white static changes to blood red, and begins to literally drip OFF OF the screen to the floor below. (How did they do it? I’ve decided after weeks of speculation that most likely there was something projecting static ONTO the screens from above that could easily extend a projected image away from the screen. At the time, however, it was a terrifying visual mind fuck.)

To my delight, Caryl Churchill’s imprint was all over this production. The prose was perfectly translated with her blunt, curt slices, and I could easily hear her voice through Atreus’ demented fascination with revenge and Thyestes’ explosive horror and shock at his brother’s actions. I often feel, after reading a Caryl Churchill play, that I’ve been slapped in the face a bit by her passion, focus, and ruthlessness. And seeing Thyestes felt like far more than a slap. It was like a verbal beat down by the sickest depths of human detriment. Am I glad I saw the play? Absolutely. It was an immersive journey into a darkness I only want to visit in the theater. Unlike Phedre, Thyestes didn’t demand pity for its characters. It expected you to be as repulsed by them as they are by themselves. “Oh, you’re here to watch us?” they seem to ask as the play begins, “Well, your choice. Good luck with that.”

The good news? Thyestes ran a short 75 minutes. I don’t think any of us in the audience could have handled more.

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PHEDRE at the National Theater

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I recently had the great privilege to be in London for a few days, and when I heard that Helen Mirren (excuse me, *Dame* Helen Mirren) would be starring in a production of Phedre (the Ted Hughes translation, no less!) at the National Theater, it was with great hope (and very little expectations) that I attempted to score a ticket. Well, what are the chances that there were TWO returned tickets in the SAME row for the sold-out press night performance available at the box office at the moment my mom and I inquired about availability? Sometimes I think the universe aligns itself with perfect magic.

As I waited for the show to begin, looking at my four-pound program (cost, not weight – they CHARGE for programs in London!! wtf?), a man sat down heavily next to me. “You just got that ticket, didn’t you?” he asked. “Um…yeah,” I said, not quite sure where this was going. “I know,” he replied, “I just returned it an hour ago.” Everything about his tone implied I was RIDICULOUSLY lucky to have gotten his returned ticket, and he considered me a poor substitute for whatever companion of his was originally supposed to have the seat to his right. I would have said something back, but I couldn’t think of the right way to phrase it (“oh, did your wife/boyfriend/daughter/mate get sick or something? well that was just terrific for me, huh?”), and to be honest, he was completely right. I was ridiculously lucky to get a ticket, and I’m sure I’m a completely annoying theater companion to have. When I’m excited about the show, I don’t just watch the performance, I tend to watch the reactions of the people around me (it’s quite creepy, I imagine). I have no scruples “shh”-ing my neighbors if they’re being dicks and talking during the performance (WHO DOES THAT??! sorry…personal pet peeve), I watch a show with what must seem like bizarre focus, and I suspect (although I’ve yet to personally notice), that I’m a Loud Breather.

Anyway, nothing was different in my experience watching The National’s Phedre, which, although strikingly simplistic, offered plenty to observe. At the top of the show the stage was blocked by a “Safety Curtain” (called that even though it was clearly more “wall” than “curtain”). As the house lights dimmed (I still get goosebumps thinking about it), the “curtain” opened like a camera lens to reveal one of the most chillingly enchanting stage pictures that’s ever greeted me at the top of a show. The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is as much of a character in the production as any of the people who inhabit it – depicting a sort of hallway/balcony of Theseus’ castle emerging “naturally” from what must be a huge mass of fiercely orange rock, set against a stunning blue sky. Because this balcony is partially covered by the rock (producing an indoor/outdoor feel), lighting designer Paule Constable was able to work beautifully with shadows. Although one has the impression that Theseus’ kingdom is bathed in bright, hot, golden light, most of the characters spend the play in the decidedly darker (visually and thematically) shadowed world of this balcony.

The Gods, evoked so precisely in Hughes’ translation (they’re both there and not – constantly present in the conscience and consciousness of the characters but never “seen”; and conspicuously absent as Phedre spirals out of control) are both present and absent in this set as well. The sheer majesty of the space is enough to make one believe in the Gods of this world, but the openness and loneliness of the barren set (I can remember one, maybe two insignificant metal chairs) feels as empty and unfulfilled as so many of Racine’s characters when they fruitlessly call on the Gods for help.

If I’m spending a lot of time trying to evoke the visual impact of the stage picture at the top of the show it’s because…well…for me it was by far the best moment. It seems dismal to say it “all went downhill from there” but it kind of did. That’s not to say the show wasn’t stunning – it was – but the task placed on these actors – to fill this incredible space – was near impossible. Which is not, of course, to say that they didn’t do their darndest. It was extremely interesting for me to read the London reviews of Phedre after opening night, and, subsequently, read the New York reviews after a special filmed performance was presented in NYC last week. The Londoners were generally cruel, dissing Mirren as well as the rest of the cast, but placing most of the blame on director Nicholas Hytner (Artistic Director at the National). One reviewer even made the brassy call for Hytner’s resignation as a result of his direction. Mirren’s “restraint” was condemned, and actors were deemed “bloodless”. On the other hand, the NYTimes review of the filmed production had enough ass-kissing gushiness in it to even make me (who love love LOVES Mirren) squirm a bit. Her “majestic theatricality” was practically worshipped, as well as her veteran status and the overall production’s incredible theatrical impact.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree a bit more with the Brits than the New Yorkers. Phedre is one of the most complicated, fascinating and heartbreaking female characters in all of drama, and at times it seemed (to my horror),  like Mirren was encouraging us to laugh along with her at Phedre’s utter feminine ridiculousness. You know all of those horrible stereotypes about jealous women? It felt like Mirren’s Phedre was saying “Yeah guys, that’s me! It’s OK to laugh.” For those of you not familiar with the plot, I’ll give the bare bones version: First performed in 1677, written by the French Dramatist Jean Racine. Phedre’s husband Theseus, the King, has been missing for a while. Meanwhile, she’s desperately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus (awkward…), and doesn’t know what to do about it. She’s tried being a jerk to him (didn’t work), and sending him away (didn’t work), so now, with her husband missing and questions of succession coming up, she tries just telling him how she feels. Now, it’s a tragedy, so can you guess how that strategy works out? Correct – it doesn’t work.

What the New York Times called “majestic theatricality”, I’m inclined to call surface-level mockery, at least at its worst points. At one particularly awful moment, Phedre discovers that Hippolytus is secretly in love with Aricia, a prisoner-of-war living at the palace. First Mirren looks forlornly into the distance, then turns her back on the audience, and a moment later doubles around, literally snarling “Aricia must die!”. Around me, the audience burst into laughter, while I cringed. I’m really awkward about laughter during performances when it doesn’t come at moments where I’m convinced it should (like, say, in a comedy), and this moment, which as written has so much potential for heartbreaking patheticness, became instead a grotesque caricature of every misogynist’s idea of the “jealous woman”.

That’s not to say, of course, that Ms. Mirren is not a spectacular actress. She is. I saw it at several moments throughout the performance, most notably during her death (whoops! gave away the ending. but come on…you had to guess it), which was utterly poignant, painful, and agonizing. Crawling onto the stage, Phedre collapsed in a heap with as little dignity as her servant Oenone, who threw herself off a cliff an act earlier (one British reviewer implied the actress might as well actually have done so. Ouch). Only at this moment (granted, five minutes before the show ended), did I truly feel the impact of the force that is Helen Mirren onstage.

[The rest of the cast was good, too, but let’s face it, any production of Phedre is all about Phedre. A ridiculously petty point that I must nonetheless mention: Dominic Cooper (playing dream-boy Hippolytus) is hot. Like, H-A-W-T hawt. I had seen him a few years back in The History Boys on b-way and was generally unimpressed, but in this incarnation, wearing a black wifebeater and camo pants, he was sizzling. I realize it’s petty to judge someone based on their appearance rather than their performance (um…I think that was good, too…didn’t really notice…) but if you can’t do it with Hyppolytus (the male equivalent of a pin-up girl, as far as I’m concerned), who can you do it with? Let’s put it this way: I TOTES understood where Phedre was coming from.]

Overall, it was a night I would not have missed, and although the performance was curiously disappointing in some ways, the fact of the matter is: reliving the visual impression of that first stage picture still gives me goosebumps. I’d say that’s a good thing…

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