There’s plenty that could distance the audience from the happenings in “Phèdre,” the Greek tragedy — not least that some characters are descended from gods, and can promptly call in favors from the likes of Neptune himself, who is happy to do a friend a solid and send a deadly sea monster to shore.
That’s not exactly a common experience for mere mortals to relate to. But for the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production now onstage at Boston’s First Church, director M. Bevin O’Gara and her team are looking for the audience to trust those larger-than-life feels, and maybe follow them toward some good old-fashioned insight into the human condition.
“It’s beyond the kitchen-sink drama that we’re kind of used to in modern theater,” says Paula Plum, who plays the title demigoddess. “It’s an Olympian kind of excitement.”
The story — about a foreign-born queen who conceals a burning lust for her husband’s son (via a previous conquest), and reveals her feelings just in time for husband Theseus’s surprise return from a long foreign entanglement — has been told in the writings of Euripides and Seneca. More recently (but not that recently), the 17th-century French playwright Jean Racine penned a version in rhyming verse, which is often the source material for contemporary productions or translations.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project artistic director Allyn Burrows says O’Gara brought the play to the company, but it was only when they hit upon a translation by the late British poet Ted Hughes that the pieces fell into place.
Hughes’s version is written in blank verse, and feels fresh and direct even given its use of heightened language and some ringing poetry. “There is a contemporary feel to it, but the structure of the verse is such that it really gives the actors something to chew on,” Burrows says. “It doesn’t feel extemporaneous when they’re talking, it feels like they’re really delivering some epic language.”
The subject of Phèdre’s desire, Hippolytus (played by Jason Bowen), has his own love troubles. He desires Aricia (Mara Sidmore), a woman whom his father has cloistered away and forbidden to marry, because her offspring would have a legitimate claim to the crown of Athens — which Theseus (Robert Walsh) captured in battle. Perhaps it’s needless to say that things don’t work out too well for anybody.
“The challenge of the piece is these are supposed to be epic, large individuals who are just barreling toward something,” says O’Gara, “but what we’re finding is that the more we make them people experiencing things — the more human they are, the mortal they are — the more moving it is.”
O’Gara’s recent directing work includes 2013’s “Tribes” at SpeakEasy Stage Company, which won Elliot Norton and IRNE awards for best production, one part of the “The Displaced Hindu Gods Trilogy,” which closes this weekend at Company One Theatre, and “Becoming Cuba” at the Huntington Theatre Company.
“In its time,” O’Gara says, “Greek drama was essentially a cross between going to the Super Bowl and going to the opera. And we don’t have anything now that creates that sense. How do you bring those two things together for a modern audience? How do you create that kind of energy?”
Though these actors have experience with classical theater and are performing “Phèdre” for a troupe that’s mainly dedicated to the work of William Shakespeare, it’s not necessarily a given that Shakespearean techniques apply to this material. Bowen says he resisted an initial instinct to treat Hughes’s verse like he would The Bard’s, before discovering that its rhythms are more flexible and less prescribed.
Another challenge posed by the script is that it contains several particularly long speeches, and much of the key action happens offstage and then is only discussed in front of the audience. There’s lots of talk about what people have done, what they want to do, and how they feel about it.
“It’s really on us to capture the sentiment and the urgency of what that character needs,” Bowen says. “It’s definitely a challenge.”
Plum, who likens her role to “the female Hamlet,” says the raw power of Phèdre’s emotions provides a firm anchor. “I don’t think I’m revealing too much to say that I have known obsession. And it’s painful and dark and frightening. She is possessed by something she feels she has no control of, and I have known that. Not often or frequently, but I have been possessed like that. I understand that kind of isolation.”
ASP scouts different locations in which to perform each production and is mounting this one at First Church in Back Bay.
O’Gara notes that the production audiences will see is the result of an accumulation of various artistic perspectives, but the urgency of the play’s underlying emotions should tie it all together.
“You’re seeing this through four lenses, really. We’re looking at a classical Greek tragedy, retold by a Frenchman, translated by a Brit, and then interpreted by a troupe of American actors,” she says. “But when you try to contain anyone’s desire [as in the play], what options are there? You can turn to stone, or you can erupt.”