nytheatre.com review by Tim Cusack
August 12, 2006
Over the centuries, the role of Phaedra (as conceived by the 17th century French playwright Jean Racine) has acquired the reputation as perhaps the most challenging female leading part in the Western dramatic canon. Tormented by an overwhelming passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, wracked with guilt because of her dishonorable action in confessing her love for him (once she believes her husband, Theseus, is dead), this is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown from her first moments on stage. Stung by Cupid's arrows, Phaedra is by turns despondent, jubilant, vengeful, abject, and finally, sunk to the lowest levels of remorse, self-annihilating. Sustaining this level of histrionics (and finding variety and specificity within them) over the course of a five-act play would test the mettle of the most seasoned actress.
Saying that Cara Maltz, the young performer taking aim for Phaedra in X-plormentals Theatre Collective's adaptation of the play, Confessions, doesn't hit a bull's-eye with every moment is not meant to diminish what she does accomplish: Her attempt to seduce Hippolytus (David Beck) simmers with the heat of pent-up erotic energy, and the realization that he loves instead the captive princess Aricia (Susie Abraham) erupts with full scorched-earth ferociousness. And perhaps most impressive of all, her final scene shocks with the sense of triumphing over Theseus (Paul Pryce) she brings to Phaedra's death. But the problem is that Maltz is a good two decades too young to be playing the role. Aside from the technical problems this presents the actress, it's extremely difficult for a modern audience to appreciate how transgressive Phaedra's love is if she and Hippolytus are the same age. Obviously, there's nothing that can be done about that except wish her the opportunity to someday be able to assay the role again.
Unfortunately, overall the youth and obvious inexperience of the performers is one of the major drawbacks of Dongshin Chang's production—most of his cast doesn't quite have the artistic maturity yet to tackle this material—the other being his frequent use of blackouts, which interrupt the flow of the narrative. Nevertheless, despite the stop-and-start quality of the stage rhythm (completely anathema to Racine's neoclassicist sensibility), Chang manages to convey the story with clarity and simplicity, providing the audience a taste of the emotional devastation inherent in the playwright's vision.
Curiously, however, the promised use of Chinese theatre techniques as stated in the company's press release never seemed to materialize. To this admittedly untrained eye, the cast seemed to give very traditional "Western" performances—the one exception being Michael Bordwell's Oenone, Phaedra's nurse. Stealing every scene he was in with a performance danced as much as acted, he makes a case for Oenone as the most interesting character in the play. Utilizing a rigorous physical language, while managing to milk his lines for every possible laugh, Bordwell seems airlifted in from a parallel universe—his work is at that high of a level. Every time he fluttered onto the stage, he offered a tantalizing glimpse of what this production could have been. His performance proffers hope that when Chang has more abundant resources of time and talent with which to create his work, he'll have something truly original to offer our theatre.