A fresh translation (Timberlake Wertenbaker) of Jean Racine’s 1677 play set in long-ago Trézène only proves once more how timeless and truly pathetic unrequited love can be.
Appropriately, Christina Poddubiuk’s sparse set (a solitary fountain the sole adornment of the long rectangular stage; silver clouds cling to the back wall, providing a visual link to those above who make it their business to keep mere mortals in check) allows the deep waves of emotion to wash unhindered into the souls of the audience. The equally light, largely effective score from David Lang utilizes the wide-ranging cello (Ben Bolt-Martin) and punctuating percussion (Graham Hargrove) to further reinforce the depths and heights of the drama as well as the unseen gods’ rituals respectively.
Equally effective and discreet is Louise Guinand’s minimalist lighting and Spartan costumes.
Nothing gets in the way of the centuries-old tale and director Carey Perloff’s vision of how unholy desire—once confessed—forever alters the lives of an afflicted/oblivious pair and their immediate circle of family, friends and servants.
Seana McKenna’s Phèdre is a spectacular tour de force that shamelessly reveals another heart laid bare—in this instance it’s step-son Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad, miles away from last season’s Professor Harry Hill’s musical conquest of River City, demonstrating yet again the Stratford company’s incredibly versatile core of actors).
Like so many women in power (husband Theseus—Tom McCamus—spends most of his time away from home ridding the planet of real monsters and perceived rivals), Phèdre must rely on advisors when her aching heart threatens to trump reason.
Roberta Maxwell fulfills that role with unerring professionalism as Oenone. Having abandoned her own family in hopes of a much richer life in steadfast service to her queen, it’s easy to understand why the devoted nurse/confidante offers to spread around some pride-saving dirt about Hippolytus. Instead of—Phèdre hopes—secretly pining for his worldly step-mother, the king’s son has the audacity to love Aricie (Claire Lautier can’t quite match the stellar delivery of her colleagues). The Athenian Princess was on the wrong side of the last great battle.
Once Phèdre realizes (a) Hippolytus has no interest in returning her aging lust (b) the rumours of her tyrannical spouse’s death are false all hell breaks loose. Tellingly, the reported news of Theseus’ demise spurred the sudden widow to confess her long-suppressed feelings, safe in the knowledge that her intended would finally and readily, she fantasized, be able to return them. The May-December relationship might be looked upon with disdain, but at least no laws would be broken.
By journey’s end—curiously similar to Zastrozzi, (cross-reference below) the body count is high. Hippolytus finally manages to win his father’s admiration by slaying his own dragon, but has already lost his respect and life when, in a jealous rage unhampered by an any facts, Theseus successfully appealed to Neptune, begging the all-powerful god to mortally punish his, reportedly, incestuous son.
But it’s McKenna, even in poisoned death, who commands the stage as her unquenchable desire wreaks havoc. Those who’ve ever been on either side of the unwanted-love equation can only marvel at the veracity of this performance. JWR