New take on French classic debuts tonight

Love sucks — particularly if the gods have fated you to fall in love with your stepson.

This is the case for Phèdre, the title character in the School of Drama production of Jean Racine’s 1677 play, directed by Christopher Mirto DRA ’10. The production, which opens tonight at the University Theatre, eschews a radical adaptation of the classic drama, pushing the story’s emotional universals instead, Mirto said. The production uses a modern translation of the play to keep it relevant to the audience, he said.

Jean Racine's
Steven Schmidt
Jean Racine's "Phèdre" debuts tonight at the University Theatre.

“It’s classic — the text is really strong, the language is really strong and the plot is super simple,” Mirto said.

The play, based on the Greek tragedy of Phaedra and Hippolytus, deals with the themes of love, jealousy, depression and guilt. Phèdre — as the French Racine spelled the name — has fallen madly in love with Hippolytus, the son of her husband, Theseus. It is an all-consuming love that ultimately kills both Hippolytus and Phèdre, as she makes mistake after mistake in an attempt to control a situation that rapidly spins out of control.

Mirto said he feels a strong connection to Phèdre.

“[Love] is so painful and wonderful,” Mirto said. “And having your heart broken sucks. [It’s about] what it means to be in love with somebody, but you can’t tell them. I mean, it’s so goddamn painful.”

Echoed the show’s dramaturge Brian Valencia DRA ’10, “Everyone at some point has felt an attraction to someone or something that is ultimately not going to return the same level of love or affection or care. And that’s what this production is really built around.”

Mirto and Valencia worked together to find a version of the play with language accessible enough for the audience. After reading six or seven translations out loud, they ultimately settled on a translation that is devoid of rhymed couplets and alexandrine meter — a poetic meter comprising 12 syllables per line — instead of taking a more colloquial, terse approach to telling the story, Valencia explained.

“[The play] didn’t really feel that Greek,” said Liz Wisan DRA ’10, an actress in the play. “The language was a lot more contemporary, it was a lot more alive, it was more actable.”

The language is not the only thing that deviates from classical structure. The show’s set is a postindustrial cube with identical floors and ceilings. All scenes in the five-act play take place within the same frame. There are six doors set in the ceiling, walls and floor, none of which leads to the same location, making the actors’ entrances completely unpredictable.

“We imposed a kind of illogic on the space in an attempt to symbolize the illogical, irrational treatment that the gods ultimately enact on these poor eight mortal souls, who are more or less trapped in this world that ultimately doesn’t make sense for anyone, and is tragic for everyone,” Valencia said.

Mirto said he has capitalized on the theme of the labyrinth and entrapment in the play — the Minotaur, famously slaughtered by Theseus, is Phèdre’s half-brother. The choice manifests itself both in the set and the costumes. The design team infused classical, haute couture clothing with sadomasochism-inspired touches, such as leather straps on sandals and bodices.

“It comes from the idea that everyone is trapped in this world to an extent, in this kingdom,” Valencia said.

Simple as the story may be, the production, which runs without intermission, will be a challenge for audiences, Mirto added.

“It’s not an easy show,” he said. “And it’s a harsh design, and it takes a little patience. It’s a little slow-burning.”

The show runs through Saturday, Oct. 31.

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