Wednesday, November 9, 2011

theatre review PHAEDRA BACKWARDS, McCarter Theatre, November 6

The world premiere of Marina Carr's new play Phaedra Backwards recently ended its run at the McCarter Theatre and we caught one of the final performances.   An updated and somewhat modernized retelling of the Phaedra myth, the play is one that still needs a little work to fully realize the goal it is trying to achieve.

Directed by McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann, the play has a dreamlike feel to it, using film projections as both remembrances of the past as well as showing plot elements that aren't exactly able to be staged, like ones involving the characters in the ocean.  These scenes work perfectly for the way that Carr has reimagined the tale as one that starts at the end, then goes back and forth to the beginning and shows us how Phaedra got to where she ended up, with the film images serving as a way into Phaedra's memories.  The simple stage that includes only a table, some chairs, a chaise lounge and a stone ledge also works well with the story.

Stephanie Roth Haberle and Julio Monge
However, if you didn't know the myth or read some of the notes in the playbill you might be a little lost.  This is one area where Carr needs to provide more details.  For example, the myth's main thrust revolves around two main plot points.  The first, Phaedra's sexual longings for her stepson is very important but the play only shows the tension and heat between the two of them but you never get a sense that Phaedra or the stepson are interested in each other, it just seems that one or the other is putting on an act to make others jealous.  The second revolves around the character of the Minotaur, who is Phaedra's half brother and was killed by her husband and her sister.  However, after he is dead, the Minotaur comes after Phaedra and her family even though she was one of the only people who tried to protect him.  While I understand the Minotaur is a creature that acts impulsively, the earlier tender scenes between him and Phaedra are at complete odds with what transpires due to the way parts of the play are underwritten.

Phaedra stars Stephanie Roth Haberle in the lead role, and she excels in the part.   Her character runs the gamut of emotions and she is giving one of the best performances I've seen this year. The majority of the rest of the cast is almost at her level though some of the characters, like the plot, are a little underwritten, which might explain why some of the actors didn't seem as entrenched in their parts as Haberle is.

The play also includes one somewhat uncomfortable scene where we see how Phaedra's mother Pasiphae plans to mate with the white bull (which is how the Minotaur was conceived.)  It  is completely unnecessary and is more there for shock value.   Also, the scenes between Phaedra and her husband as well as her mother and her father, only show the downside to their marriages, not any of the happy times which you kinda need to see to better understand why they are even with these people.  Again, the play in its current truncated 90 minute running time, needs to add some of these missing elements as well as eliminate some of the unnecessary ones in order to be a better play.

I understand that Carr is trying to show how the Phaedra myth is relevant today, and the theme that ghosts of one's past can force someone to do somewhat unnatural things is definitely something that doesn't just happen in myths.  However, having Phaedra, her husband and stepson in modern clothes while the characters of her mother and siblings are in "mythology" dress doesn't really show me how the myth is relevant today.

So, while I enjoyed the staging, direction and most of the acting, Phaedra Backwards didn't really connect with me.

Scenes from the play -

Behind the scenes discusssion -

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