McCarter Theatre’s – PHAEDRA BACKWARDS: An Afterthought

November 18, 2011

This is a postscript.  The world premier run of the show has ended, but life got in the way of me writing about it before.  Perhaps it is better this way.

Let me start with this statement:  The best part of the McCarter Theatre Company’s production of Marina Carr’s PHAEDRA BACKWARDS is the poster.  The rest was rather flawed and confusing.

Phaedra was the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae and sister to Airadne.  The myth contends that Minos upset Poseidon, so he enflamed Pasiphae with lust for a white bull with which she mated, giving birth to the Minotaur.  Theseus killed the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne whom he married, but she died (in various ways according to various versions of the myth), and he married Phaedra only to live unhappily ever after.

Phaedra fell in love with Theseus’ son by a previous marriage, Hippolytus, who rejected her, and she is the ultimate cause of Hippolytus’ death by being dragged by his horses or attacked by a Kraken or a bull or a wave or a strong wind and drowned.  You choose.

That’s the back story.  It is good to know the backstory of the events in this play since it jumps around chronologically with characters often inhabiting the same space in different times and at different ages for no viable reason.  That is one of the main problems with this script.  Why was it written?

As staged, this script resembles a “white-trash” version of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? without any of the charm of the Albee original.  Phaedra swills wine throughout and brays at anyone who comes near her.   Indeed, Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Phaedra runs the emotional range from angst to angst.  Neither script, approach, nor direction gave her any depth of character.

At one point, Theseus asks: “What’s the point of this?” which is a rather loaded question since I had been wondering that for some time.  Besides changing the story or not giving enough information to help make certain aspects of the story make sense (such as Pasiphae’s reasons for lusting after the white bull), nothing new is developed.  Here, these descendants of gods and heroes are reduced to malicious whiners, and the shifts in time and place tend to be rather confusing.

Equally confusing was a scene where Minos, Pasiphae, Ariadne, and Minotaur come back from Hades, string Phaedra up on a chain, and do something to her.  I believe they were supposed to be cutting parts of her off to eat, but I cannot swear to that fact.  It made no sense.  Why would they hate her?  Ariadne died before Phaedra married Theseus; Phaedra did not take her away.  It was Ariadne who helped Theseus kill Minotaur (who, in this version, was a very friendly little calf-child), but he is not angry with Ariadne, and… Never mind.  It just made no sense.  If the audience was supposed to believe that this was Phaedra tormenting herself, it missed the mark.

Oh, I must admit; I did not go to the pre-show lecture which explained to any willing audience member what to look for in the show.  I’m sorry; I come from a rather diverse theatrical background.  If I must be told what a show means or what to look for so that I can understand it, there is something definitely wrong with the show.  I know the myths surrounding these people well, and things just did not add up.

Since this is an afterthought, I won’t go into much further detail.   Let it simply be said that the script and production were extremely disappointing.  The performances were variable with most of the characters seemingly walking through their parts.  Some, like Julio Monge as the Minotaur, were simply miscast and were not helped by poor costuming and ludicrous staging.

Once again, I was left with a resounding “Why?” echoing through my head.  Why would someone do this if there was not going to be an attempt to in someway enhance or show greater depth to this story?  This is especially true when one looks at Racine’s version of this myth.  For sheer theatricality and emotion, it cannot be beaten.

It is sad when the dialogue in a script gives critics the perfect fodder to use against it.  Some of my favorites in this included:

“You’d watch anything if it was lit properly.”

“It’ll all look better in the morning.”

“I am not equipped for this; leave my terrace.”

Minos asks: “Am I in the right place?”

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