By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Incest (sort of), blasphemy and a power struggle are the black powder of any telenovella. And here, as in all good soap operas, the king returns very much alive after all have shown their hands: Phaedra has revealed her passion to Hippolytus, who in turn has embraced Aricia, who has signed off on the throne deal. No sooner does Theseus reclaim that throne than Phaedra’s faithful old nurse, Oenone (June Claman), persuades the king that Hippolytus has raped the queen — setting in motion events that will sweep the stage clear of three characters.
Director Epstein presents the story in a fast but committed 90 minutes on Michael Smith’s austere set, which resembles a drained pool; as a backdrop, there’s a screen on which varying shades of twilight are glimpsed through a stand of gilded bamboo. The time is any time, the place anywhere. Costume designer Jennifer Brawn Gittings provides the ensemble with a variety of period outfits ranging from Wehrmacht formal (Theseus) to contemporary hesher (Hippolytus) to pseudo-Elizabethan (Phaedra). The problem with this production is that the characters don’t inhabit the personalities of their costumes: By letting actors bend just a little to their garment’s whims, this Phaedra could have been a more interesting — a more sexual — performance without lapsing into the smug anarchy of To You, the Birdie! Like The Bacchae, there is a clash between desire and kingly authority in Phaedra, but here there is no sense of play or subversiveness in the characters or their surroundings. (Probably the most effective scene is the violent argument between Theseus and that reluctant object of Phaedra’s desire, Hippolytus.)
As it is, the ensemble members are trapped in their rigid deadpans — a condition that Frédérique Michel avoided. Along with Medea, Phaedra is one of the meatiest actress roles in the Greek canon, and Cole almost makes the most of it, though every time she seems on the verge of exploring new ground with her character, and of breaking out as some fateless persona, Wilbur’s rhyming couplets seem to bring her back to earth and her destiny. Perhaps this is why Claman’s grim portrayal of Oenone is so effective — it’s entirely in the spirit of Racine’s austere poetry.
THE BACCHAE | By CHARLES L. MEE | CITY GARAGE, 1340½ Fourth St., Santa Monica | Through October 22 | (310) 319-9939
PHAEDRA | By JEAN RACINE, translation by RICHARD WILBUR | A NOISE WITHIN, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale | Through November 19 | (818) 240-0910