Written by Jean Racine.
Translated & Adapted by Paul Schmidt.
Directed by Nicole Wiesner.
Produced by Trap Door Theatre, Chicago.
Lust Unto Madness Does Her Part.
Maintaining their position as a company offering the most uniquely avant-garde theatre experience in Chicago, Trap Door Theatre seduces us below to Venus’ chthonic and debauched realm in their current production of Phèdre. Written and adapted by Paul Schmidt, and blending elements of Euripides’ Hippolytus, Nicole Wiesner’s expressionist production of Phèdre is a lustful indulgence of the senses, a vision dripping with erotic sensuality—one ardent ooh short of an orgy—delicious.
Set in what appears to be a BDSM dungeon—with an inclined, wooden platform flanked by wooden posts draped with chains—Phèdre takes place in Troezen, on the Peloponnese coast, where, before the play begins, Hippolytus (Carl Wisniewski), in leather kilt and vest, sits in contemplation—of his long-absent father, his tragic love?—as beside him reclines a languid Mars (John Kahara), in leather speedo and fishnet stockings, and about him stalks a vengeful Venus (Halie Ecker), in black and scarlet skirt. The production begins in earnest with Venus’ fatal declaration: because the cold Theseus refuses to pay homage to her, she shall see him undone by Love Lust!
What follows defies concise description—largely because the production design, most notably the live Foley art/original music (designed by Danny Rockett) and the expressive choreography, work in infernal harmony to create a darkly rich and evocative atmosphere that transforms what already is an unsettling, emotional play to a level of almost pure, pulsating and tortured feeling. Nevertheless, the story we are following is Phèdre’s (Tiffany Bedwell), whose agonizing lust over the prudent Hippolytus, her husband’s son, drives her to the point of madness, until it finally brings to ruin all lives wetted in its seething pool.
Not only for those who appreciate steeping in the viscous bath of lustful tremors, Phèdre also offers much fodder for post-production discussion for those who appreciate thinking. For one, the interplay of the gods, the emasculated Mars and the vindictive Venus, analogues perhaps for their respective passions—or, if psychology is more your bent, the animus and anima—is worth contemplating: specifically, what role does Euripides/Racine/Schmidt/Wiesner see these gods playing in affecting the characters and their actions; and what role does the ruler/patriarch Theseus (Carl Wisniewski) play in attempting to set right his kingdom overrun by passion?
Aside from the impressive production value of this show, there are many impressive performances to appreciate. To say Tiffany Bedwell’s performance as Phèdre is arresting would be understatement: it’s hard to imagine a more invested and varied embodiment of one overwhelmed by forbidden and unrequited lust. Halie Ecker’s Venus is an exceptional portrayal of a goddess typically represented as languid and voluptuous: here, her sinister wiles bring out the insidiousness of lust and fit perfectly in a production that allows for no redemption. And John Kahara, who plays both Hippolytus’ tutor Theramenes and the embodiment of Mars, brings to both roles his delightful physicality and sense of humor as well as his penchant for subtlety.
Trap Door’s Phèdre is likely to inspire polemic reactions: one either finds an affinity with the subject matter or the avant-garde; or else one is so blown away (or offended) as to find oneself in the restaurant next door, absently admiring the color palette of the walls. But for fans of Trap Door’s avant-garde style, or those with open minds looking for something fresh in this often pedestrian Chicago theatre scene, Phèdre is well-worth the time and money for a taste of rare delicacy.
Reviewed on 13 January 2017.
Playing at Trap Door Theatre, 1655 W. Cortland St., Chicago. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and Fridays, and $25 on Saturdays, with special 2-for-1 admissions on Fridays. For tickets and information, call 773-384-0494, or visit TrapDoorTheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. through February 11th. Running time is 75 minutes with no intermission.