Near the end of the three-and-a-half-hour slog that is Phaedra(s) — just when you’ve given up hope for it and, indeed, all existence — something wonderful happens. Until then, the production, which opened last night as part of BAM’s Next Wave festival, has been interesting mostly as a catalogue of the latest Euro-avant-garde tics and obsessions. They’re all there: the droning music, the two-way mirrors, the live video feed, the body fluids, the haute couture, the stiletto heels, the simulated sex, the fixation on plumbing. Also checking off a box on the packing list is a movie star, in this case the great French actress Isabelle Huppert. In recent years I’ve seen at least four shows that juggle these same basic elements, including the Sydney Theatre Company’s version of The Maids, which starred Huppert and Cate Blanchett. That one wrangled its clichés quite well, but make no mistake, Phaedra(s) is name-brand trash; its designer, Malgorzata Szczesniak, must have rung up quite a charge at PretensoMax.
How did one of Western culture’s oldest stories, already well known before Euripides staged his version of it in 428 B.C., become a parody of storytelling itself? Call it the revenge of the dramaturgs. The fundamental tale is apparently no longer difficult enough to relate: Phaedra, kidnapped from her native land to become Theseus’s queen, conceives a passion for her stepson, Hippolyte. Bad things ensue; depending on the retelling, these include some combination of alleged rape, real rape, sea monsters, suicide, mad horses, and murder. The common central theme is the violent aftermath of undisciplined love, not only for individuals but society.
As the lit-crit parenthetical “s” in Phaedra(s) indicates, this production by the Odéon Théâtre de l’Europe (in French, with English surtitles) intends to complicate and multiply the story. To that end, the director Krzysztof Warlikowski, working with dramaturg Piotr Gruszczynski, has mashed together three more-or-less contemporary takes on the tale. The first is the work of the Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad, who has envisioned Phaedra (Huppert) as a post-punk incarnation of Aphrodite, vomiting and menstruating and writhing in lust for her rebellious leather-pantsed amour. (In case you need more writhing to get the point, the production helpfully provides a nearly nonstop belly dancer.) After more than an hour, this metaphysical pornography finally ends in the Phaedra-kills-Hippolyte-then-herself option, but by then Hippolyte has for some reason been reimagined as a dog. Never mind; here comes Phaedra No. 2, in a version drawn from Sarah Kane’s 1996 play Phaedra’s Love. (Kane called it, with grim irony, “my comedy.”) This time Huppert is a semi-narcotized redheaded royal, a Sarah Ferguson on Klonopin, and her Hippolyte is a dissolute post-frat princeling caged in the castle, jerking off in his socks, playing with a robot car, and staring at the plasma TV. (We are shown the shower scene from Psycho perhaps ten times; I never envied Janet Leigh before, but at least she got clean.) A few sex acts later, the lights come up mercifully but mystifyingly for intermission.
Huppert, who at 63 has been going to acting extremes for 45 years, is excellent thus far, if you can be excellent picking through a dump. Wearing her Dior, Givenchy, and Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent outfits, she has conveyed both the intense glamor of classical royalty and, let’s say, a convincing animal nature. Her technique is astounding and fearless; there is no point at which you don’t believe she has fully re-created within herself the conditions of each particular scenario. But if her voice and gait no less than her wig and gown change radically with each new Phaedra shell she inhabits, this is an interior and mostly empty expertise, like private dancing. Something in the material must have evoked a response large enough to make her follow it through — it’s a beast of an evening even more for her than for us — but nothing in the first three hours makes it possible for an audience to care the way she does. She is merely impressive.
And then, as I say, after the intermission, when the Kane version of Phaedra eventually gives way to one based on a character from several J.M. Coetzee novels, something marvelous happens. Huppert is now playing Elizabeth Costello, a famous writer being interviewed on the subject of Eros. This has very little to do with the story at hand — Costello is mostly concerned with sex between gods and humans, not mothers and stepsons — but at least it is funny, with Huppert giving a master class in character comedy while Andrzej Chyra, formerly the dissolute Hippolyte, nails the sly intellectual preening of a second-rate French interlocutor. Then, suddenly, Huppert leaps from her seat as if bitten by something and enters what appears to be a different dimension. This turns out to be the dimension of actual drama: Racine’s 1677 verse drama Phèdre. Passionately, and yet almost instantaneously, Huppert is operating within the restraint of the stately French alexandrines, and all the false emotion and sketch comedy of the previous Phaedra iterations gets wiped away. Here is the real thing, wrenchingly delivered.
And then, just as quickly as it appeared, it is gone. Back comes Elizabeth Costello for a snarky coda; down the onstage porcelain sink swirls any sensible, let alone useful, incarnation of the tale. Buh-bye now.
The problem with this sort of avant-garde isn’t its checklist of tired tropes; these can be revivified. It’s that they are mostly engaged regardless of context or human connection. They are self-gratifying at best. When Phaedra No. 2, in the Sarah Kane segment, asks her Hippolyte why, if sex is so dispiriting and empty, he continues to have it, he answers, “Life’s too long.” That’s dark — but not, alas, sufficient justification for wasting an evening of it with this.
Phaedra(s) is at the BAM Harvey Theater through September 18.