Phaedra, the title role in Jean Racine’s “Phèdre,” is probably one of the world’s first drama queens. She oscillates between living and dying, sanity and madness, and lament and rage enough to make your head spin. Her forbidden love for her stepson Hippolytus sends her and the rest of the cast of the play into a whirlwind of chaotic emotion that threatens to tear apart a family and destabilize a kingdom. That’s all well and good, but when that whirlwind is unleashed onstage, there are certain expectations. First and foremost, it is expected to cohere, and despite an admirable attempt on all parts to make all of the screaming and gesticulating amount to a holistic event, the whole thing is ultimately too fractured to yield anything truly resonant.
The play opens on Hippolytus (Andrew Kelsey), son of Theseus (Austin Durant) and stepson of Phaedra (Brenna Palughi), who, despite his best efforts, has fallen in love with Aricia (Christina Maria Acosta), the imprisoned survivor of a line slaughtered by Theseus to reclaim the throne of Athens. When Theseus goes missing and is feared dead, passions that were kept under control by his iron rule are let free: Hippolytus declares his love for Aricia, and an ailing Phaedra declares her love for Hippolytus. When Theseus returns unexpectedly to take back his vacant throne, a scandal ensues that forces him to choose between his wife and his son.
Although it is called “Phèdre,” the show is all about Theseus. Durant dominates every scene with his sonorous bellow and his imposing frame. His rage is divine, his sorrow infinite. Whenever he is offstage, there is a big Theseus-shaped hole in the audience’s conscience. Despite their best efforts to form an adequate counterweight to Durant’s physical and emotional presence, everyone else just seems to get absorbed in his wrath. Kelsey, for all his dramatic gesture, becomes nothing more than window dressing. Phaedra herself adopts a shrill, wavering tone that makes you wish she would just go through with her promise of suicide so she would vacate the stage. Acosta is the only one that poses any kind of threat to Durant’s dominion of the stage. Her graceful poise and cool composure act as the perfect antithesis to Durant’s roiling fury. If only she had the extra support necessary to tip the scales a little more.
It is clear that Durant’s powerhouse status poses a major problem for director Christopher Mirto. Everything tends to coalesce around Theseus when he appears onstage; everything is a reaction to his action or an appeal to his mercy. When he is absent, things are altogether too loose. Left to their own devices, the rest of the cast seems somewhat clueless, meandering through lines that don’t have the impact that they should. There’s a lot of good material here about the curse of love and the dilemma of fate, but without a proper emotional framework to hold it together, it falls flat.
“Phèdre” is not a show about chemistry or the beautiful movements of an ensemble. It is an exercise in brute emotional force that manages to both send chills down your spine and leave a bad taste in your mouth. It is an event of monumental but coincidental power that, despite its boom and thunder, could have been a lot more.