La Femme est Morte
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 16, 2006
There is much to be savored—and digested—in the theatrical feast served up in Shalamar Productions' La Femme Est Morte or Why I Should Not F&!# My Son. The myth of Phaedra, abandoned wife of Theseus, who is struck by love (and lust) for her stepson Hippolytus, has inspired playwrights from Euripides to Racine to Sarah Kane. Creator-director Shoshona Currier uses Seneca as her base and stirs in extracts of news, pop culture interviews, historical speeches, and literary works. Audiences familiar with Charles Mee's adaptation of the Greek plays will recognize this collage-like, multi-layered approach—a technique that keenly re-contextualizes the ancients into our own, information-overloaded time.
Currier's adaptation dramatizes the tension between a civilization obsessed with consumption and bereft of deeper purpose, and the imperialistic military which promotes this empty culture abroad. Theseus speechifies about fighting for his country's values in words stolen from Patton, MacArthur, and Churchill, while the media circus around him exposes the emptiness of the society he wants to defend. The production bombards us with images, music, and action that wittily critique an overstimulated, celebrity-addicted society, and as the stakes get higher, the world seems more extreme and absurd. But the chaos works so well because Currier is very much in control of the spectacle, and her spirited cast of actors commits with such gusto.
Kim Gainer's Phaedra is sultry and hilarious as a trailer-trash diva; even staggering with lust, she reigns over the stage as a pop culture queen. As Niamh, Phaedra's ruthless but desperate publicist, Jen Taher has several show-stopping comic moments. Atticus Rowe embodies the brawny meathead Theseus and represents the voice of American bravado. As the chorus of rabid paparazzi, Michelle Enfield, Joey Williamson, and Amber Dow maintain the hyperactivity of a mediated world, though Currier and choreographer Isis Masoud overextend the trio in some of their musical numbers which lack the virtuosity they really need to dazzle. Everyone's social role is well-defined by Vikki Pascetto's costume choices.
What is less clear is the function that Hippolytus serves in this interpretation. Jesse Hooker's portrayal is likeable and vulnerable. He's damn convincing when he puts on boxing gloves and starts slugging—indeed, Hooker's tour-de-force boxing match with Rowe is a thrilling high point. But this Hippolytus neither fits in with, nor clearly opposes, either his step-mother's indulgence nor his father's arrogant warmongering. So who is Hippolytus now? He's vowed celibacy yet he describes the scenarios from porn movies that run through his mind. What most confuses—or at least defuses—this interpretation is the choice to have Hippolytus return his step-mother's desire, thus deflecting the conflict of her taboo attraction and his resulting revulsion. The adjustment also makes the speeches from Seneca sound archaic and awkward, because the morality they espouse is so out-of-touch with behavior onstage. In such an indulgent world, what do people mean when they talk about sexual infidelity as "sin"? What does a society that feeds on image and scandal care about "honor" and "virtue"? What taboos remain?
My hunch is that if Currier could find a voice for Hippolytus that articulated his position as strongly as the other characters—and possibly make him less susceptible to the trashy allure of his surroundings—this piece could maintain more of the integrity of the original myth and more clearly demonstrate its relevance to our times. Still, these reservations don't reduce the power of a delicious theatrical experience that serves its audience abundant food for thought.