Saturday, September 09, 2006

Racine's Phaedra


PERHAPS FORTY YEARS AGO we saw a performance of Racine's great tragedy Bajazet performed in a grand production at the University of California, Berkeley -- a production which has literally haunted me ever since. Not so much for the play itself, which I hardly recall, or for the performances, though I do recall one actress -- Roxane, probably -- frequently placing the back of her hand to her forehead as she declaimed:
But, Ah! ...
It was the physical production that so tremendously impressed me. The direction and the design were by Henry May, as I recall; one of the two or three members of faculty of the University's department of Dramatic Arts at the time. The play was on the stage of the then-new Zellerbach Playhouse, an improbably wide, shallow stage; and the stage was virtually filled, again as I recall it, with a single striking scenic invention: a shallow pool containing real water; and the entire production was black and white, starkly beautiful.

A little earlier we'd been captivated by Alain Resnais's film Last Year at Marienbad, with its re-creation of a piece of baroque French drama in a garden theater, featuring forced perspectives. Looking back, now, I see that these two impressions reinforced one another to create a kind of mental configuration central to my then-developing sense of theatrics, by which I mean the use of public space, gesture, and declamation to express artistic intention. And ever since I've yearned for classic French theater, rarely available.

TONIGHT WE SAW a performance of Racine's Phedre, ably translated by Richard Wilbur, beautifully set by the Glendale rep company A Noise Within, respectfully and properly directed by Sabin Epstein, and amazingly well performed; and my admiration for this theatric is redoubled. I've written before, somewhere on this blog, about the function of Theater in defining and celebrating that necessary human quality Community: here is a perfect example. I'd worried, a bit, in advance, as to how the dramatic arbitrariness of this plot would be received by a contemporary audience: no need to worry.

A Noise Within marvelously captures this essentially communitarian quality, as Racine did in his 17th-century poetry, as Euripides did in the original version, written when a smaller community, at a time just after the emergence of conscious awareness of society, still found it necessary to work out the meaning of blood lines, of family, of the succession of leadership, of the necessity to subordinate passion, especially sexual passion, to social propriety.

Much of what I admire in French style is classical: poise, balance, clarity, discursiveness. All these qualities are at their peak in Racine. His play was of course written in rhyming alexandrines, in a French limpid and direct enough to make sense even to my imperfect comprehension of the language -- though the subtleties of its elegance of course escape me quite, and I require critical apparatus, like that in the old Random House edition of Samuel Soloman's translations, to reveal such niceties as Racine's mastery of those ineffable French tenses.

Richard Wilbur is a poet, and his rhyming pentameter seems both conversational and poetic, both realistically sudden and introspectively discursive -- in other words, true to Racine. And in this production it is these words that hold center stage. The great role that is Phaedre grows from the person and (especially) the situation of the woman herself; but it's Racine's expression that lifts it into something really quite exceptional.

I suppose I shouldn't really tell you about this performance, as it hasn't officially opened yet: we saw the first public preview of the run, because it's the only night we're able to see the show -- it closes before our next trip down here, in early December. But I'm going to break the rule that one doesn't review previews, because it would be irresponsible to conceal this magnificent evening of theater.

Like Henry May's Bajazet, this production uses a single set: a formal rectangle within a low wall on the deeply thrust stage in this small theater. The costumes, quite effective, depict no particular time, once you get past Hippolytus's grungy tee-shirt and Levis. The language, of course, alludes constantly to Greece and Crete, the Greek gods (by their Latin names) and the fate of the house of Theseus; but the action of the play can be anywhere or nowhere or, most likely, wholly within a mental state, whether Phaedra's, or Hippolytus's, or ours.

We thought the cast superb. Jenna Cole rose to the title role with a considerable range of emotion without ever losing dignity; J Todd Adams was a methodical, believable Hippolytus; Robertson Dean an outstanding Theramenes; Mark Bramhall an effective Theseus; June Claman an edgily sympathetic Oenone; Dorothea Harahan a credible Aricia. (Sarah Rincon and Charlotte Miserlis complete the case capably in minor roles.)

The play runs in repertory until a day or two before Thanksgiving. It's a highlight for us in a year already generous with memorable theater.

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