Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Review: "Phaedra Backwards"

The world premiere of Irish playwright Marina Carr's "Phaedra Backwards" makes the myth sizzle. Inquirer theater critic Howard Shapiro reviews from McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.

Review: "Phaedra Backwards"

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Stephanie Roth Haberle is Phaedra and Julio Monge is the ghost of her half-brother/half-bull, the Minotaur, in the world-premiere "Phaedra Backwards" at Princeton's McCarter Theatre.

By Howard Shapiro

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, ,215-854-5727, or #philastage on Twitter. Read his recent work at Hear his reviews at the Classical Network,

Phaedra Backwards: Through Nov. 6 at McCarter Theatre, Princeton, N.J. Tickets: $20-$100. Information: 609-258-2787  or

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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