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A CurtainUp Review

by Susan Davidson

Dadís been missing for some time. Junior is involved with a chick Dad does not approve of. Dadís wife who is Juniorís stepmother has the hots for Junior. What is this? Oprah? Geraldo? No, it is Phedre, a play written in 1677, and considered to be one of, if not the most important classic in the French canon. Its author, Jean Racine, is Franceís equivalent to Englandís William Shakespeare.

The characters, steeped in Greek mythology, are very much brought to life by the playwright and his late twentieth-century translator, Ted Hughes. Two elements stand out: passion and language. Phedre, particularly as portrayed by Diana Rigg, is first and foremost an intelligent woman who is able to analyze her emotions while admitting to what amounts to animalistic lust for her stepson. When she wails, "I am in love," the audience knows this is not a happy admission; it is the confession of one who suffers. This is a powerful performance.

Toby Stephens, as Hippolytus, the object of Phedreís affection, is less successful in his role. The young actor (and son of actors Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens) from his first entrance flails about the stage, delivering his lines like fast balls at a sports event. Youthful exuberance would be fine but this characterization has no downs, only hyper highs. Stephens keeps coming at you, rat-a-tat-tat.

Although Stephens throws away much of the poetry assigned to him, and Julian Glover as Hippolytusís father, Theseus, delivers a very uneven performance, the women more than take up the slack. Diana Rigg reaches the back of the house with every word she utters; her emotions keenly felt; Barbara Jefford as Phedreís nanny/mentor/advisor Oenone, is quite moving, and Joanna Roth as Aricia, is both stunning to look at and to listen to.

Running time is one hour and forty-five minutes (no intermission) and it is a credit to Ted Hughesís translation that the audience is riveted from start to finish. This does not play like a soap opera or some overly weighty inaccessible Greek or French classic; it plays as tragedy told in language that is as illuminating as it is poetic.

Editor's Note: Many BAM productions, this one being an example, sell out during their all too brief runs so that many theater goers miss out. Then too, some people think of the Majestic as too far to go. To lay this last misconception to rest, Susan Davidson has written a few paragraphs about the BAM experience to bear in mind for future events -- Brooklyn's Grand Old Dame, The Majestic

By Jean Racine, in a new version by Ted Hughes
Directed Jonathan Kent
With With Diana Rigg, Toby Stephens, David Bradley, Barbara Jefford, Joanna Roth, Avril Elgar, Julian Glover, Holly de Jong.
Set design: Maria Bjornson
Lighting design: Mark Henderson,
Music: Jonathan Dove
Sound, John A. Leonard Filmmaker, Tony Palmer .Almeida Theatre Company at the Majestic Theater, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Fulton Street north of Flatbush Avenue. In repertory with Britannicus1/05/99-1/17/99.
Reviewed by Susan Davidson

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© Elyse Sommer, January 1999