So much theater today amounts to bite-sized snacks that barely whet your appetite, but Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s) is like a feast or ceremony that provides theatrical sustenance for days on end. It is divided into roughly three sections and runs about three and a half hours, and it is presided over by the post-modern queen of perversity herself, Isabelle Huppert. Many writers have told the story of the royal Phaedra, and Warlikowski samples a lot of them here, from Euripides and Seneca to a contemporary British version by Sarah Kane and even a hunk of Racine’s classic 1677 version as a kind of surprise dessert at the very end.
Huppert first enters the stage as Aphrodite, strutting on like a high-class call girl and laughing uproariously in a very vulgar way when she speaks of how she bewitched Phaedra and made her fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus. With her aggressively direct gaze, as if she can see right through each member of the audience in front of her, Huppert still has a way of emptying herself out so that she can be totally possessed by any emotion she selects, from scathing derision to apathy to tumultuous despair. She runs the gamut here, and then she runs rings around that gamut and starts an entirely new gamut until you have to marvel at her appetite and her stamina, which only stimulates your own stamina as an audience member. Huppert asks a lot of you, but she is willing to give back a lot if you trust her hot instincts and her cold intellect.
The first part of Phaedra(s) was constructed by Wajdi Mouawad, and it features heightened language and imagery that the petite Huppert decorates with all kinds of brutish physical behavior as she punches herself and rolls around on the ground and uses every inch of the large stage at the BAM Harvey Theater. When this first Phaedra says that she would bed Hippolytus even if he were her own son and not her stepson, Huppert brings all of her flair for taboo smashing to this line. (Is there any taboo that Huppert hasn’t smashed in one movie or another?)
In the Sarah Kane material that makes up the second part of the evening, Huppert alternates between blank-faced denial and sordid, nauseated despair in a far more theatrical way than she would have ever allowed herself on screen. She even sometimes indulges in a wild-eyed overplaying that few other actors would touch because Huppert is interested in extremes and also because everything she does has a controlled sort of theoretical basis or standard no matter how far she swims out emotionally. Kane’s writing is filled with British slang that is spoken in French in a clearly Eastern-European visual theatrical atmosphere, and yet Warlikowski somehow makes all of these disparate elements cohere.
There are mistakes made sometimes, notably the decision to play the shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) in slow motion on a TV screen as Huppert’s second Phaedra confronts her Hippolytus (Andrzej Chyra). That famous scene bears little relation to what is going on between the characters and serves as a serious distraction, as do lengthy excerpts in the third act from two other movies: the lobotomy scene from Frances (1982) and a scene from Pasolini’s Teorema (1968). These scenes bring their own associations with them and they clutter up the evening, particularly since it feels like no one involved here seems to know that the lobotomy and many other elements of Frances were fictionalized. It could be argued that Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer has become a myth like any other, but if so this needs to be made clearer.
But it turns out that Huppert has been saving the best for last. She comes out in the third act, which is mainly by J.M. Coetzee, as a zany author named Elizabeth Costello, and Huppert works in a very broad comic vein here that feels like new territory for her. (It is part of her strangeness that Huppert is never really funny but she sometimes approaches or flirts with being funny.) When Costello mentions Racine’s version of Phaedra, Huppert goes over to a sink and bends over for a moment and when she straightens up suddenly she is playing the famous Racine version at full intensity. It becomes apparent here that Huppert could have come to Brooklyn with a traditional production of Racine’s Phaedra and had a success in it, but that’s too conventional a choice for the tricky, kinky Huppert. She has to run this experimental marathon and dance around the idea of Phaedra before allowing us the pay-off of playing her like many major French actresses have for generations. The finishing touch comes when Huppert drops this grand manner and plops back down into her chair and becomes the obsessive, comic Costello character again right away, at which point the audience exploded with applause for this feat of virtuosity.
Huppert is the opposite of a Method actress. She has said in many interviews that acting is fun for her, but what she really wants is to make us think about what emotion actually is or can be, which is why her achievements in film are finally academic in the best and most rewarding sense. Most performers want us to feel and they want to be sympathetic, but Huppert wants us to think and she scorns sympathy. She performs a magic trick at the end of Phaedra(s) that is amazing but chilly, too, and a little scary. Her artistry is far more evident on stage, somehow, than in even her best films, and this production showcases Huppert’s artistry in its many forms better than just about any vehicle she has ever had.
‘Phaedra(s)’ opened last night and runs at the BAM though Sunday. Tickets are available here.
Photo credit: Stephanie Berger