It is already the end at the beginning of “Phaedra Backwards,” an imaginatively conceived and often amusing new play by Irish playwright Marina Carr now having its world premiere at McCarter Theater. Although it is based on a Greek myth that is grounded in familial tragedy, Carr has infused it with dollops of macabre humor that make it suitable entertainment for this Halloween season.
Phaedra (Stephanie Roth Haberle) has just heard the tragic news that her stepson, Hippolytus, with whom she was indiscreetly toying, was killed falling off a cliff. “Was it steep?” she asks her husband, Theseus (Randall Newsome). “I’ve never heard of a shallow cliff,” he answers. Blaming him for Hippolytus’death, Phaedra may have good reason to suspect the worst, but even more reason to suspect that his destiny, as is hers, as well as that of her entire family, cannot be averted.
It is Phaedra’s back-story that serves as the trigger in Carr’s exploration of the Greek myth through Phaedra’s fond memories, her nightmarish visions, and the enactment of events — some more bizarre and fantastical than others — that lead us from the present to the past and back with some necessary overlapping. But are we ready to cope with Phaedra as a loud-mouthed lush; a crushing bore with nothing more on her mind than to keep up her tart-tongued yammering at her notoriously unfaithful Theseus while she keeps refilling her champagne flute and making indecent, insinuating sexual overtures to Hippolytus (Jake Silbermann) in the presence of his girlfriend Aricia, (Julienne Hanselka Kim)?
Being ready also means being open and receptive to the lesson of what it apparently meant to be a human, sometimes only a half-human, recipient of the gods’ and goddesses’ perverse but all powerful playfulness in time gone by. Just think how much easier it was for the ancient Greeks and Romans to blame who they were, what they did, and what they and their progeny were destined for after being subjected to the whims and indiscretions of those manipulating life on earth. Surely humans could not take all the blame for such anti-social behavior as incest, bestiality, infanticide, and in general man’s inhumanity to man.
McCarter audiences who recall productions of two of Carr’s previous Irish-grounded plays — “The Mai” in 1996 and “Portia Coughlan” in 1999 — may think they have an inkling of what to expect. But I suspect they will be surprised and also pleased by the circuitous route she has taken to tell this story. Commissioned by McCarter and developed over the past several years, “Phaedra Backwards” gives us another perspective of a legend that has continued to intrigue generations of writers.
Going forward by means of going backward works quite well. Far from being confusing, it casts a contemporary and hypothetically psychological light on the ancient Greek myth about Phaedra and her kin, all of whom it appears are more than a little misguided in their lusting. Haberle rants, raves, and smolders impressively around the stone terrace of her home as the forces that have defined and are in control of her fate slowly begin to manifest themselves with dramatic urgency under Emily Mann’s artfully conceived and gracefully executed direction.
With his charismatic countenance on display, Randall Newsome keeps us intrigued by simply justifying himself as the egotistical womanizer Theseus. Susan Blommaert is endearing as the nanny/housekeeper who mutters and meanders about and is the first one to feel the presence of Phaedra’s intruding, revenge-seeking dead relatives. The good-looking Silbermann did what was expected of him and did it quite well as Phaedra’s easily distractible obsession Hippolytus. Considering that most, if ot all of the characters in this play are generally lacking in character, it is worth noting how this fine company of actors are completely in dramatic synch with the often rib-tickling text.
Yes, the whole thing is pretentious and preposterous in the manner of classic myths. But Carr and the supportive creative team have done a crackerjack job making something very old seem very new, if still not very relevant. Carr, inspired (as we are informed, U.S. 1, October 19) by the version by French playwright Racine (“Phaedra” in 1677) whose own imagination had been piqued by the previous dramatizations by Roman philosopher/author Seneca the Younger and before him by the Greek Euripides (Hyppolytus) may not be on home turf with this story. She has, nevertheless, embraced the story with a wry and witty sensibility (call it Gaelic-edged) that allows us to laugh as often as not at the ludicrousness of the plot.
With respect for the many contemporary dramatists who also used the Phaedra story (including Eugene O’Neill, Frank D. Gilroy, Charles L. Mee, and Frank McGuinness), Carr brings us to a time and a place that allows the actors to at least have their fun and die while having it. The wide expanse of the large stage serves the minimalist but handsome setting designed by Rachel Hauck. Rectangles within rectangles are etched upon a large glass wall in the background that perhaps suggest time and space without end. A large weathered wooden table and chairs and at a considerable distance a leather chaise longue are the only furnishings on a stone floor. A low stone wall suggests the cliff that separates the residence from the ocean below. The words “Now and then; then and now; always” are projected on the glass when the play begins. More than a clue, it is also perhaps the answer to the mysteries that the play purports to reveal.
The attire designed by Anita Yavich, particularly the mood-enhancing gowns worn by Phaedra, suggests one world, but one indirectly officiated by characters and creatures from another. To this end, Carr has cleverly given a marvelous reality to Phaedra’s half brother, Minotaur, as played with hoof-pounding bravado as well as with a tinge of poignancy by a horned Julio Monge.
Among projection designer Peter Nigrini’s scary and beautiful images are those showing Phaedra’s childhood as she plays in the fields with her sister, Ariadne (Alexandra Erickson) and the young Minotaur (Noah Hinsdale). One of the play’s more fantastical and rather comical scenes finds Phaedra’s mother, Pasiphae (Angel Desai), planning and practicing her seduction by the white bull with the help of an inventor (Christopher Coucill). Intentionally or not, the scene in which the dead members of Phaedra’s family rise from the sea and scramble over the terrace wall to torment and torture Phaedra for being the cause of her sister Ariadne’s suicide is comically horrific.
An eerily beautiful underscore by Mark Bennett helps bridge two worlds as far apart as they are unalterably entwined as much by destiny as by design. Perhaps Carr’s play doesn’t ultimately make any more sense out of the myth, its meaning and its characters’ machinations than have any of her predecessors. The important thing to know is that you will have more fun with “Phaedra Backwards” than you probably ever had with her going forward.
“Phaedra Backwards,” through Sunday, November 6, McCarter Theater (Matthews), 91 University Place. $20 to $60. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.