I saw *Phaedra(s)* at BAM on 9/13. This is the kind of show that I KNEW I would be seeing alone! It was just too weird for color TV, as my husband would say. It was a French production, in French (with titles), starring the great Isabelle Huppert. This is the fourth time I've seen her onstage, and I have to see her every time she comes to town, she is such an exciting actor and has such wonderfully perverse taste in plays. She is fearless, she will do anything.
The play is a non-figurative retelling of the Phaedra myth, drawing from writings by Sarah Kane, J. M. Coetzee, and Wajdi Mouawad. I'll quote from the BAM website: "Krzystof Warlikowski directs this postmodern plunge into forbidden love, where sexuality wears sunglasses en route to illicit ends."
I walked into the theater and wrote Richard a text: "The set: fluorescent lighting and ceiling fans. This could go either way." The show started with a slender gorgeous woman onstage standing in front of a microphone, a wraith-like young man beside her with an electric guitar. They did some Middle-Eastern sounding grooviness and caterwauling. After a bit a huge shadow appeared on the side of the stage: a seemingly naked woman, three stories tall, writhing about in a most inviting manner. I felt like I was watching the opening credits to a Palestinian James Bond movie. A movie that needs to be made! The dancer came onstage, and she wasn't quite naked, she had her parts mostly covered up with some sequinned gewgaws. She danced around, threw her frizzy hair about with great abandon, clearly knew just how to move in those stiletto heels.
Huppert came onstage. She played Aphrodite at the start of the show. Glamorous, ironic, completely in control. Then she morphed into Phaedra, who was a mess, writhing about on the bed center stage. She put her hand on her cooter, realized it was bloody, and flipped out big time. She slid off the bed and crawled to the back of the stage, whimpering the whole time. She turned on the shower at the back of the stage and tried to wash out her cooter. I thought of a quote by the French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine: "Everything changes but the avant garde."
There was a scene with her stepson playing a dog. Naturally she butchered him with a very large knife. Things calmed down a bit in the next scene. Her stepson was human again, this time in human form, a stunningly beautiful young man, Gael Kamilindi. They had an inventive, abstract sex scene, which might have ended with her killing him with a very large knife. I wasn't quite sure.
The music in this scene caressed the ear as it assaulted the psyche. Back in the 90s Sofia Coppola read Jeffrey Eugenides' book *The Virgin Suicides* and decided to make it into a movie. Let's pretend that she read the book and decided to make it into a Pac Man-era video game. The music in this scene was the music that would be playing in the Virgin Suicides Pac Man video game.
Huppert wandered off to the side and lingered meaningfully by the sink. Another woman came on in the dark on the other side of the stage. They meandered about, the Virgin Suicides Pac Man music going full tilt boogie, and then - - would you believe - - we heard a voice announcing that they were having technical difficulties and they would take a ten-minute break. Huppert and the other actor walked offstage and the house lights came up, dimly.
I really and truly wondered if it was part of the show.
A huge glass cube rolled onstage, then off. I knew going into the show that it would be nearly 3.5 hours long and wasn't sure I would make it through the whole thing. I was tempted to leave at this point. The show was an impressive combination of obscure texts, moody lighting, projected video, peculiar music, and intense performances from the actors. It was fascinating, but was it good?
The glass cube rolled back on and off. The house lights went down and the show started again. Huppert was now playing another version of Phaedra, this one rather ladylike at first, or maybe it was just her petal-pink A-line skirt. The glass cube rolled on and another version of her stepson was in the cube, watching TV. The last scene featured the two of them, in the cube, having a strange conversation, eventually having violent sex, followed by more conversation, all the while the shower scene from *Psycho* playing in a loop on the TV in the corner. They timed it so that Phaedra came into the room at the precise moment when Mrs. Bates pulled aside the shower curtain on Marion. That was very satisfying.
I left at intermission, I had seen enough. I made many notes about the show, during the technical snafu break and on my way home. I feel like this review wrote itself. I enjoyed writing the review more than seeing the show. Does this happen to other critics?