By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
In the dark, enticing world-premiere production of Phaedra Backwards, which is evermore galvanizing as it unfolds on the main stage of Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, myth seems somehow very real.
Yes, Irish playwright Marina Carr’s version of the Phaedra story is updated, but not wildly; it’s not re-set in an office park in Greece or anything like that. The modernity comes in the language — searing and coarse and oddly beautiful, because Carr cooks up muscular dialogue with no place for leftovers on the plate.
This modern version also begins at the end, which is how it gets its title, then shifts back to the beginning, with memory scenes all along the way that take us back and forth through time.
Phaedra Backwards was commissioned by McCarter Theatre Center with additional support, and turns out to be a revealing retelling of a myth that has been told in several ways, probably since its creation. Euripides had a hit on his hands 2,439 years ago in Athens, when his version won first prize in a theater festival; his play was called Hippolytus, for the stepson Phaedra covets — hots that lead to her downfall (plus the moral and physical downfall of just about everyone, for this is a myth).
In Phaedra Backwards, unlike the classic story, the burning desire is answered in kind by the 20-something she covets. The play — in a production staged by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann — is a sizzling 90 minutes, obsessive longing packed into all the other baggage Phaedra carries: her dead mother obsessed with a white bull, a resultant dead half-brother who’s half-bull (the well-known Minotaur), and an older late sister who was tied to Phaedra’s current husband, the head of Athens (and well-known Minotaur slayer) Theseus.
You could understand Phaedra Backwards, and the original myth, as one big revenge tale. Given the insistence on justice for the Minotaur’s slaying by the ghosts of her dead family (Angel Desai as the mother, Julio Monge as the Minotaur, Mariann Mayberry as her sister Ariadne), you’d be right.
But Carr, and Mann, go for more and achieve it; by beginning with the story’s ending — the untimely death of stepson Hippolytus — the play is a more urgent look at a pent-up, fixated cougar and a hunk hankering for an over-rich round of cheesecake.
They are played by the steamy, alluring Stephanie Roth Haberle and hottie Jake Silberman, whose quiet pout almost pulsates; for a moment I wondered whether I should suggest a threesome. But I refocused to realize that a threesome exists, in a triangle, with Theseus, Phaedra’s husband and blood father of the boy, a nice turn by Randall Newsome.
Their marriage has come to naught; Theseus no longer has a spot of desire for the menacing Phaedra and nonchalantly talks of conquering 3,011 women, which puts him in Wilt Chamberlain’s neighborhood, but in a somewhat lesser house.
The interior of that house at the McCarter is designed minimally but effectively by Rachel Hauck and lit by Jeff Croiter. Anita Yavich’s flowing, sensual dresses for Phaedra are eye-popping, especially the way Haberle fills them. The sound design is by Mark Bennett, and Peter Nigrini’s projections are essential to the production’s stirring effect.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org, ,215-854-5727, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.
Phaedra Backwards: Through Nov. 6 at McCarter Theatre, Princeton, N.J. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.