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Racine’s Phèdre is traditionally played one of two ways: as a furious earthquake of passion or a slow boil of suffering. In one of the most celebrated performances of the 19th-century French stage, Rachel’s lovesick queen famously transformed into a raging apocalypse of desire. Not wanting to compete with the daunting memory of her predecessor, Sarah Bernhardt enhanced her own legend by taking a more dolorous approach. Thus, the Phèdre acting molds were set. But regardless of the interpretative tack, the play’s success lives or dies by the persuasive power of its leading actress. Few in the English-speaking world have managed to put their stamp on the role. Despite its compulsive intrigue and grandeur, Phèdre remains a consummately French property. Part of the blame can be attributed to those damn alexandrines, which no matter how you translate, never fail to lose the fire hidden inside their icy perfection. The other problem, of course, has to do with all those museum-piece versions featuring grandes dames operatically declaiming a text that’s been denuded not only of poetry but insistent reality as well.
Can’t say I ever saw a revival in English (and mercifully I’ve seen only a handful) that wasn’t a travesty of the mothballed Comédie-Française style. But just as the Wooster Group breathed unexpected life into Eugene O’Neill’s often embarrassing The Hairy Ape and Gertrude Stein’s abstruse Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, the company has now deployed its theatrical alchemy to re-create the formal discipline and emotional chaos of Racine’s final masterpiece. Staged by Elizabeth LeCompte in the St. Anne’s Warehouse, To You, the Birdie! could be retitled Phèdre Our Contemporary—if you’re prepared to recognize the millennial decadence in the fiercely contested badminton matches (that’s right, badminton!) that routinely take place between characters.
Though the production is obviously not faithful to Racine in any literal way, there’s more than a winking respect for Paul Schmidt’s elegantly relaxed adaptation. The Group’s usual techno-sprawl is given an appropriately exotic feel (palm trees deck the familiar post-industrial set, lending it a kind of supermodernist Trozen feeling). And though the raunchy physicality of the cast (with everyone scratching, fondling, and wiping themselves) would seem to violate neoclassical decorum, the bodily antics underscore the central theme of human flesh’s refusal to submit to the will. Love will not be corralled by political or moral necessity. “How can I rule a country,” Venus’s victim plaintively asks, “when I can’t control myself!”
The ever formidable Kate Valk portrays Racine’s guilty heroine as an overpampered basket case, who conserves her strength for hollering at her crafty nurse Oenone (played with deadpan esprit by Frances McDormand). Too exhausted even to speak, Phèdre offers only fervid mumblings, which are narrated in amusing, contemporary cadences by Scott Shepherd, whose voice-overs capture the extremity of her humiliating situation. It’s bad enough to fall in love with your stepson Hippolytus (aptly embodied by Ari Fliakos as a boy dwarfed by his father’s shadow), but worse when all your scruples only serve to intensify your incestuous longings.
In between bouts of romantic torment, Valk’s Phèdre agonizes over the right shoes, barking at her servants to bring yet another pair. Unable to eat or shit without a retinue of assistants carrying suction equipment (lurid hygiene that recalls the excesses of Huysmans’s Des Esseintes), she vainly tries a little badminton for herself. But even the most leisurely of sports proves too much for Her Languid Majesty, who can barely lift her racket, never mind hit the birdie over the net. Racine may have protested that his protagonist’s crime is “a divine punishment rather than the product of her own will,” but this Phèdre often seems like a disaffected supermodel suffering from a self-inflicted eating disorder. By slyly updating the privileged social context, the production wittily turns catastrophe into comeuppance.
Purists can scoff at the reductionist treatment of character, but To You, the Birdie! is as much a valid reading of Phèdre as it is a resonant meditation on our time. The spry dialectic between text and contemporary history takes on the culture of male narcissism when Willem Dafoe’s Theseus enters the story. Strutting his bare chest so that every muscular nuance is on display, he can’t stop posing despite the fact his travels to Hades have finally worn him out. As his staff massages him, a video image of his torso transforms into a marble statue—a perfect analogy of the fetishistic (fascistic?) body worship that characterizes both ancient Greece and modern America.
But more than thematic cogency, it’s the Group’s formal precision than lends its sporty play with Racine such vigor. Free from the constrictions of alexandrine verse, the cast imposes an alternative stylistic restraint on their performance—call it the Wooster Aesthetic. This blend of ironic seriousness, heightened theatricality, anachronistic interpolation, and multimedia ballet has developed into one of the sharpest and most reliable of theater instruments. Yet who could have predicted that it would have made such an ideal scalpel for Racine’s surgical exploration into lust?