The tortured family drama is a theater staple—think Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Oedipus Rex—and there’s no family more fucked up than that of Phaedra, Queen of Athens. She’s married to Theseus, the great Greek hero who killed her half-bull half-brother the Minotaur, but she’s madly in love with her stepson Hippolytus.
When Phaedra confesses her forbidden fantasies, Hippolytus rebuffs her; so she lies to the king and claims her stepson raped her. Theseus curses Hippolytus and begs the gods to kill him (which they do in brutal fashion) and Phaedra ends up committing suicide, wracked with guilt over having destroyed her young love.
The Phaedra myth has fascinated playwrights since ancient times—there’s so much darkness there, so many primeval emotions from obsessive lust to wounded and violent rejection, that it lends itself easily to the stage.
Now, its latest iteration has arrived like a tornado at BAM’s Next Wave festival with Isabelle Huppert in the title role. Called “Phaedra(s)” and directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, it’s an uneven production that cobbles together three modern imaginings of the doomed queen: a psych-ward fantasia by Wajdi Mouawad, Sarah Kane’s “Phaedra’s Love,” and a cheeky essay by J.M. Coetzee.
Huppert inhabits Phaedra—or Phèdre, for the play is in French with subtitles—for the full 3½ hours with such magnetic force that whatever faults the show has pale next to her raw vitality.
Don’t go if you’re expecting catharsis or fun. The reason to see “Phaedra(s)” is to witness an actress in her elemental prime.
The play opens with a guitarist and a singer—clad in black leather and vinyl—wailing a seductive and edgy Umm Kulthum tune as a dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero) gyrates in a rhinestone bra and stilettos.
Lights and shadows from the peep show ripple across the set, which is made up of sandy yellow bricks that call to mind the ancient palace of Knossos—that Cretan lair of the Minotaur and Phèdre’s old home. The rest of the scenery is sparse: a sink, a bed, an industrial showerhead wrenched to the wall. We are in space that is both monumental and claustrophobic, and this little opening act—the fleshy dancer, the moody night music, the raspy vocals—is setting the stage for a story about illicit gazes and taboo desires.
Huppert appears in a long blond wig and black mink. All it takes is for her to walk across the stage and the audience goes mad. It’s impossible not to watch this woman.
After a brief monologue as the Greek goddess Aphrodite (more on that later), Huppert transitions into her first Phèdre—Mouawad’s version, the least coherent of the three—as a woman losing her mind, perhaps already institutionalized, with her nurse as witness.
Huppert writhes and screams on her bed, trying to say the name of the person who is tormenting her and spinning off into fractured memories of the horrors she supposedly witnessed as a child.
The way she tells it, Theseus came to Crete to execute her people and, in a Ramsay Bolton-esque move, loosed a pack of dogs on the island kids. Phèdre is the only one who survived and she ends up marrying the génocidaire who murdered her kin. (This flourish seems to be Mouadwad’s invention; in the Greek myth, it is Phèdre’s family who demands the ritual sacrifice of youth to feed to the Minotaur.)
As a backstory, it’s chock full of trauma and Huppert plays this first Phèdre with the fragility of a woman whose emotional age was arrested by unthinkable disaster, one that somehow got bound up in her adult mind with sex and pain.
So Phèdre’s psyche is seriously ill at ease—a place where past wounds and present shame bleed into each other—and finally the nurse guesses her deranged secret: The queen is obsessed with Hippolytus (or Hippolyte in French).
Enter the object of Phèdre’s affections, played by the charismatic Gaël Kamilindi. Hippolyte is dressed in Aphrodite’s mink, prowling on the ground like a shaggy demon dog. He seems to be—although the play is a little muddled at this point—both a real teen and a figment of Phèdre’s imagination, a sexual predator and her prey all at once, and pure danger.
He disrobes, they hop into bed, she begs him to quench her burning body (earlier there was a line about the young rain raping the barren earth, so metaphor alert) and they simulate orgasm. Afterwards, Hippolyte hands Phèdre a knife, she stabs him, and then hangs herself from the loony-bin sink.
At this point, we're only a quarter of the way into the evening and desperately in need of a drink.
Luckily the tempo picks up with the second play-within-a-play, “Phaedra’s Love” by the British playwright Sarah Kane—who, in a tragic echo to Phèdre #1, was twice institutionalized and killed herself at the age of 28.
Kane’s take on Phèdre is both darkly funny and pretty damn nihilistic. Here, Hippolyte is a fat, depressed, self-loathing slacker who sits in his room all day, eating hamburgers and jerking off into a sock. When he gets bored with that, he pays women to sleep with him and afterward treats them like shit. In other words, a real prince. And Phèdre can’t get enough of him.
Huppert’s Phèdre #2 is a riveting character. This queen is repressed, solicitous, in denial, desperate. Dressed in pale pink chiffon, smoking up a storm, defending Hippolyte to the court doctor and her teenage daughter Strophe (Kane makes up an earlier marriage and another child for Phèdre), she’s convinced herself that she’s the only one who really gets Hippolyte. He’s not a psychopath, just misunderstood.
Never mind that he likes to play Janet Leigh’s shower scene from Psycho—a movie about another man with serious mommy problems—in a loop on his flat-screen.
Phèdre enters Hippolyte’s dank little bedroom and tries to connect with her stepson. He acts like a total dog, mocking the women who throw themselves at him just because he has money and a royal name.
The grosser he becomes, the more Phèdre debases herself before him. She disrobes and he insults her—joking that it’s been way too long since she had sex—and she responds by throwing herself at his knees, pulling down his pants and gives him a blowjob. After she’s done, he dismissively notes that she’s a worse lover than her daughter (apparently Strophe has been sleeping with her stepbrother, and also with Theseus the king) and Phèdre combusts with jealousy.
Fast-forward through a sequence of stomach-churning scenes—Hippolyte banging Strophe; Theseus having robotic sex with Phèdre’s corpse; a priest giving head to Hippolyte as he awaits his execution—and the shock value starts to seem both silly and grimy.
Still, maybe Kane’s onto something here, with this overwhelming orgy of depravity. This sex is definitely not sexy. Sure, there’s mussed hair on stage, and naked limbs and jiggling bottoms and sultry shoes—but that’s overwhelmed by the blood, the screeching, the sterile quality of the copulations, the sheer lack of any joy or passion or love. It’s a Theater of Cruelty that mocks its sorry inhabitants, which is probably how it feels to live full-time in Phèdre’s head as she can’t stop thinking about her stepson. This is deranged. This is repulsive. This is madness, and she knows it—the kind of world-shattering obsession that will destroy everything in its path.
Watching “Phaedra(s),” one is reminded that no one knew lust like the ancient Greeks. In their myths, it almost always leads to folly and yet is nonetheless a force so vast and unstoppable—flood, whirlwind, inexorable tempest—it can drive whole armies to war and capitulate powerful dynasties.
It’s this type of craving that etches the face of Phèdre in Alexandre Cabanel’s 19th-century painting of her: her eyes are haunting, hunted—fixed on a phantom who is destroying her life. Just getting over it is not the point.
As someone once said in a similarly sticky situation, “We don’t get to choose who we love.” Phèdre can see only one way out of this tunnel, and it means annihilation.
Eros and Thanatos sit side by side here and that brings us back to Huppert’s monologue as Aphrodite. She’s the Greek goddess of love, it’s true, but violence tends to trail behind her like flies clustering to honey.
It is Aphrodite who started the Trojan War by stealing Helen away for Paris. It is she who is the mistress of Ares, the raging God of Battle. In her earlier iterations as the Babylonian Ishtar and Sumerian Inanna, she is the goddess of both love and war—and she’s a regular praying mantis, a black widow divinity who seduces sweet young things like the shepherd Tammuz, only to condemn them to hell when she’s done with them.
If any man dares deny her, better watch out. So of course it comes as little surprise that she’s ultimately responsible for Phèdre’s downfall.
Huppert presents Aphrodite as an aging porn star—under that mink, she’s clad in naughty lace lingerie—and she takes sadistic pleasure in using Phèdre as her puppet, to get back at Hippolyte for favoring another goddess.
It’s not the first time in Phèdre’s family that a woman and her desires were twisted by the gods: Poseidon cursed her mother, Pasiphaë, with lust for a snow-white bull in order to punish Phèdre’s father, the legendary King Minos.
It was out of Pasiphaë’s horrific hunger that the Minotaur was born, the very monster that ended up bringing Theseus to Crete. And thus Phèdre’s road to Hippolyte was paved. Here the two women are mere playthings, tools of divine vengeance, and their unhinged sexuality is an unfortunate twist of fate to be both pitied and feared.
What sort of sicko gods would get their kicks this way?
The answer to that perhaps lies in Phèdre #3, which takes as its text an essay by J.M. Coetzee delivered by a fictional feminist academic named Elizabeth Costello (I wish you could hear the French say this name, it’s superlatively charming.)
As Costello, Huppert is straight-up sexy. Gone are the postmodern head-case and Kane’s nervous queen. Costello’s the one in charge here—cool, confident, killing it in a slim black pantsuit and patent heels. Within two seconds, the audience is lapping out of her hands—as is her interviewer, the same actor who plays Hippolyte #2 (Andrzej Chyra). They banter and flirt. She banters and flirts with the audience.
A man in the back of the theater calls out a rapturous “oui!” to one of her banal questions. It’s like drinking ambrosia after three hours of torture.
The subject of Costello’s lecture is sex—sex with gods, to be precise. While the lecture doesn’t mention Phèdre by name, many of its themes pertain to her situation. It was these types of human-god hookups that gave birth to Phèdre’s father Minos (the child of Zeus and Europa) and her husband Theseus (who in some myths is the son of Poseidon)—and that led to the abduction of her sister by the god Dionysus.
The lecture, too, deals with the question of a desire so powerful, it threatens to destroy its unwitting recipient. Then there’s also the disturbing issue of consent—and whether it’s even possible between god and human, or between adult and youth.
Costello mentions Leda and the swan, and it makes one think long and hard about how Hippolyte really wasn’t Phèdre’s equal, even though Mouawad and Kane portray him as a willing participant in his own seduction.
But the original myth—and versions by Racine and others—make it clear he’s an innocent, and not interested in what his stepmother has to offer. And even if he was—the power dynamic is so skewed. Far from being a rapist, Hippolyte is actually the victim—of both Phèdre and Aphrodite—and he ends up paying for his right to say ‘no’ with his life.
But these vignettes are about female desire and so even the clever Phèdre #3 doesn’t dwell too long on the men. Rather, Costello would rather ruminate on what it must feel like to be a woman possessed by a god.
She imagines the girlfriends of Mary of Nazareth whispering the question amongst themselves, too embarrassed to ask her how it felt to receive the Lord. She envisions Cupid fallen asleep on Psyche, his great wings bent over her in post-coital bliss. And she confesses her own long-lost longing to play lover to a deity. Costello wants to be overwhelmed—not as a passive victim, but as an agent in her own sublime submission.
One final idea that Costello floats before the night is over: Maybe the gods can’t truly feel ecstasy, and so are wildly jealous of the mortals who can. Maybe that’s why they are so cruel to us—because they envy our uniquely human capacity for passion and urgency, if not our uniquely human deaths.
But you don’t get la petite mort without also having to experience the big one. We’re back at Eros and Thanatos, down in the muck of the elemental. A place where atoms collide and are annihilated and galaxies are born.
So thanks, Elizabeth Costello, by which I mean, Isabelle Huppert—it is your brilliance that finally gets us through this sometimes punishing, sometimes illuminating marathon of a play. Phaedra’s name means ‘bright’—and through her, Huppert is our supernova who burns with the light of a million suns.
“Phaedra(s)” runs through Sept. 18 at BAM. For tickets, see here.