Even companies dedicated to Shakespeare do not live by the Bard alone. Commonwealth Shakespeare has just staged Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” in Wellesley, and Actors’ Shakespeare Project is currently offering Jean Racine’s “Phèdre” at First Church in Boston. “Phèdre,” especially in the Ted Hughes translation, is an odd duck, but it’s hardly ever presented, so I was looking forward to the ASP production, especially with Paula Plum in the title role.
In the preface to his 1677 work, Racine wrote that he had taken a path “a little different” from his source, Euripides’s “Hippolytus.” Actually, “Phèdre” is quite different. In “Hippolytus,” warring goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis watch as Theseus’s wife, Phaedra, falls in love with her hopelessly chaste stepson, Hippolytus. After his brutal rejection, she hangs herself, leaving a note accusing him of rape that causes Theseus to curse Hippolytus and bring about his son’s death. The truth, as always, comes to light too late; is the fault in the gods or in ourselves?
Racine’s play is less existential, more operatic. There are no goddesses. Phèdre reveals her passion to Hippolytus after Theseus is reported dead, but Hippolytus is in love with a new character, Aricia, and anyway, Theseus is alive, though hardly well after his wife’s nurse, Oenone, accuses his son of sexual misconduct. Euripides’s moral ambivalence gives way to self-justifying soliloquies, and Phèdre gets to defend herself (unfairly blaming Oenone) before taking poison at the very end. Racine’s rhymed alexandrines are formal in the extreme; Hughes’s muscular translation, which debuted in 1998, with Diana Rigg in the title role, is closer to the spirit of Euripides’s original, though it strands the actors in a world that’s neither classical Greece nor Baroque France.
At First Church, Cristina Todesco’s set consists of a length of heavy gold chain that’s coiled into a huge ball at the center of the playing space and trails off here and there while also hanging from the choir loft. The concept is ambiguous — the characters as victims of the chains of fate? — but the visual effect is powerful and sorts well with the stark copper-foil backdrop of the church’s sanctuary. Mary Lauve’s more or less contemporary costume design puts Hippolytus in a T-shirt and then a shirt and jeans, Theseus in tattered fatigues and then a suit, the ladies in formal dresses. Arshan Gailus’s effective sound design suggests a faint wailing wind or distant voices.
But the actors, under the direction of M. Bevin O’Gara, aren’t all on the same page, and there’s a fair bit of grandstanding. Some of the fault, at least, lies in Racine’s attempt to improve Euripides, which ends up turning drama into melodrama. Robert Walsh’s dazed, gray-haired Theseus exudes authority but overemotes; Jason Bowen’s Hippolytus is stiff and stately; Mara Sidmore’s Aricia and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard’s Ismène (Aricia’s attendant) giggle together like giddy teens. Only Steven Barkhimer as Hippolytus’s friend Théramène and Bobbie Steinbach as a winningly pragmatic Oenone seem comfortable with the cadences of Hughes’s disconcertingly free verse.
As for Phèdre, Plum plays the title lady as a grande dame better suited to Tennessee Williams. This fine actress is hardly too old for the role; Sarah Bernhardt was 55 when she undertook the 1899 revival, and Rigg was 60 in 1998. But Plum conducts herself as if she thought she were too old for Bowen’s Hippolytus. She can — and should — be a more seductive Phèdre.