Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
|A CurtainUp Review
Phaedra In Delirium
Any play with Katherine Chalfant's name listed on the program is always worth seeing, and Phaedra In Delirium is no exception. In the hands of a lesser actress this updated look at the Phaedra legend could easily sink under the weight of the societal issues playwright Susan Yankowitz has introduced. Topping this agenda is the obsession with youth, and especially the way this makes the middle-aged woman "sexually invisible" when "caught in gravity's grip." Even more timely, there's the issue of speaking about what might best be left unsaid. (I saw the play during the week when the President's private life exploded into a scandal with tragic consequences to one Monica Lewinsky and the taxpayers' interests largely because this young woman felt compelled to talk about her real or fantasized relationship with the President to another woman).
Like the Phaedra of Euripides Hippolytus and Jean Racine's, Phedre, the Phaedra re-imagined in this adaptation lusts after her absent husband's innocent stepson. However, her fixation on Hippolytus stems from her struggles not only with her own fading sexuality, and with it her self-esteem, but her anger at the husband who though he "has a turkey's neck like me" isn't prevented from "still gobbling." To Ms. Chalfant's credit she manages to portray a Phaedra who combines the grandeur of a contemporary Greek goddess, a flirt and modern mid-life Angst-driven passion. As the play begins, Chalfant in a diaphanous white nightgown and self-imprisoned in a mesh-curtained white bed exudes allure. There isn't a trace of the thickening waist, wrinkles or turkey neck only the despair of what she (not we) sees in the mirror she studies so obsessively.
Ad directed by .Australian director Alison Summers Ms. Chalfant's role is abetted by four characters played by two actors who unfortunately do not bring the fire and conviction to their dual parts to fully support either Ms. Chalfant's Phaedra or Ms Yankowitz's beautifully written if thematically overloaded script. To support the playwright's premise that Phaedra's "delirium" is borne from her husband's repeated abandonment, (he rejected her initially to marry her sister), and her stepson's icy and accusatory rejection, Peter Jay Fernandez is asked to portray these men as two sides of the same coin. Thus he plays both husband and stepson -- one a compulsive womanizer the other covering up his homosexual leanings with self-righteous chastity -- but fails to convince as either. Sandra Shipley, androgynously dressed and coifed to switch from being the tragedy's catalyst as Phaedra's female confidante and Hippolytus' tutor is also neither physically or emotionally convincing in giving these roles the required nuances, especially the underlying eroticism. Consequently what should be a gripping drama is too often talky and slow.
Despite its flaws this contemporary response to a classic myth is, like so many of these re-examinations that identify the Classic Stage Company, an interesting concept worth seeing. In addition to seeing Kathleen Chalfant in a role atypical of her work in Angles In America and Nine Armenians it's a pleasure to watch the work of a playwright who clearly loves language; as the deserted wife's complaint translated into a plaintive "He shouldn't have left me with that terrible feast on my table." As always at this theater, the play is finely staged -- in this instance with a mysterious and real forest set surrounding the central prop, the bed that epitomizes the beginning and end of Phaedra's delirium.