The age-old story of unrequited love is brought to life in Jean Racine’s “Phaedra,” a classic French Neoclassical tragedy that captures a woman’s torturous desire for her stepson. The power and destructiveness of this passion are reimagined in the current production of the play, put on by Sock and Buskin and the Department of Theater Arts and Performance Studies.
With her husband missing, Phaedra, played by Natalie McDonald ’15, awaits her death while wracked with a powerful sense of guilt over her illicit love for her stepson Hippolytus, played by Michael Chiboucas ’13.5. Unable to suppress her desires yet unwilling to confess them, Phaedra descends into psychological turmoil.
Phaedra, who is plagued by her illicit want, laments her feelings toward her stepson despite having committed no crime. “What wrong can you have done to be so crushed with guilt?” asks her nurse Oenone, played by Michelle Migliori ’14. “There is no innocent blood your hands have spilt.” To Phaedra, the sheer desire is crime enough.
Director Spencer Golub, professor of theater arts and performance studies, emphasized drama in his adaptation — simultaneously highlighting the power and vulnerability of the mind. Though Phaedra can construct a convincing narrative to justify Hippolytus’s rejection of her, she becomes entirely consumed by the strength of her guilt and her passions.
While mainly faithful to Racine’s original play, Golub’s adaptation incorporates new characters and new lines of dialogue, taking liberties based on his interpretation of what’s offered in the text, Golub said.
The cast includes 10 actors playing 12 roles, a departure from Racine’s original cast, which included only eight parts. The extra characters add another layer of meaning to Phaedra’s psychological state, at times seeming to embody her inner consciousness.
Migliori is subtle but engaging as Oenone, both a powerful voice and Phaedra’s closest confidante. Migliori showcases both the depth of Oenone’s love for Phaedra and highlights the nurse’s knack for careful, well-intentioned manipulation. Chiboucas as Hippolytus is earnest and arresting, portraying the challenges of a man striving for virtue while suffering the burdens of an overwhelming and forbidden love.
But McDonald commands the stage as tragic heroine Phaedra, exuding at once the force of passion and the anxiety of unrequited love, acting with incredible skill and energy to portray the plight of a woman driven mad by desire.
Golub creates an elaborate, mythic world. Characters engage with the set as well as with each other, creating a sensation of constant activity and kinetic confusion as the eye is drawn to different characters moving and interacting with the stage.
The set design revolves around the use of a turntable with bedroom scenes on both sides. Golub said he wanted to “tell a larger story — a more novelistic, more cinematic story,” through the set’s visual elements, allowing the stage to “preform itself” throughout the play.
Elaborate costumes, set designs and color motifs confront the audience. Costumes and makeup are dark and drawn from haute couture fashion, reflecting what Golub referred to as the play’s larger “Baroque Noir” stylistic theme. While visually stunning, the intricate staging and costume design distract from the power of Phaedra’s raw, stark emotion.
In his director’s note in the playbill, Golub writes that desire is capable of “shaking our beliefs to the point that we may become unrecognizable to ourselves.” His adaptation of the drama highlights, above all, how powerless people are in the face of their desires.
“Phaedra” runs Feb. 28 to March 3 and March 7 to March 10, Thursday to Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Stuart Theatre.
A previous caption for the photo accompanying this article implied the photo’s subjects were Natalie McDonald ’15 in character as Phaedra and Michael Chiboucas ’13.5 in character as Hippolytus. In fact, the photo pictures Emma Johnson ’14 as Theramenes/Artemis and Ty Lowell ’13 as Theseus.