Two exquisite creatures dominate Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), part of BAM’s Next Wave program this week. One is, of course, the incomparable Isabelle Huppert, who gives a savagely commanding performance as Greek mythology’s doomed queen, in many different guises. Although Warlikowski, who trained with Giorgio Strehler, Peter Brook and Kristian Lupa, is a much sought-out director in Europe, it is Huppert that audiences at BAM will come to see, and they weren’t disappointed at the show’s opening night. Dressed by Dior, Givenchy and Saint Laurent, she is certainly divine to look at, even when she’s vomiting into a sink or giving a blowjob.
The other creature is no less divine, though more physical; she is the erotic dancer who struts and rolls her long, lithe body across the stage during this nearly 3.5 hour show (incarnated by a fearsome Rosalba Torres Guerrero in a spangled bikini, glitter makeup and stiletto sandals). If Phaedra is the epitome of unbridled female desire – and a redoubtable and loathed woman as such – Guerrero’s “Arab Dancer” (perhaps a reference to Salome) is the object of male desire. But while their characters may use the same physical language to ignite passion, the two performers’ bodies appear as if at opposite extremes of a woman’s erotic shelf-life, the one exudes a supple strength and elasticity, the other the thinning silhouette and frail limbs of age (at 63, Huppert looks in great shape if minceur is the primary measure).
Set between those extremes, the play is a slowly building examination of why we take Guerrero’s slinky dancer as a given but we have to hash out over the centuries why or why not Phaedra is a selfish, unhinged bitch (the two other actresses on stage occupy slightly different variations on those themes: Norah Krief is both the sexy singer of the show’s prelude and Phaedra’s tough-love lady-in-waiting while Agata Buzek, as Phaedra’s daughter, shows us an abandoned- in the fashion of the rich and famous – and wasted Strophe).
Like other works in Warlikowski’s oeuvre, Phaedra(s) builds upon many texts on a given theme. Here, the director’s reading list is anchored by the classic versions passed down from Antiquity, as well as Racine’s, but the show’s intensity comes from contemporary writers J.M. Coetzee, Sarah Kane and the Lebanese-Québécois writer/director Wajdi Mouawad. The Phaedras on view run the gamut from stately queen (Racine) to whoring socialite (Mouawad) and depraved stepmother (Kane).
Coetzee’s contribution to Warlikowski’s textual montage – which includes the shower scene from Psycho and the lobotomy performed on a young Jessica Lange in Frances – sidesteps the ancient question of guilt in the case of the abandoned queen who falls in love with her stepson, is spurned by him, accuses him of rape out of revenge and kills herself. Yet Warlikowski finds material to his purpose in Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, where the novel’s protagonist takes a stab at the farcical “problem” of intercourse between the gods and humans in Greek and Roman myth. The scene, overplayed for laughs by Huppert, perhaps to distract our attention from the fact that she plays it while on book, might induce some rhetorical whiplash after watching Huppert’s queens for 3 hours: distractingly mad at times, cooly calculating at others, clutching at bleeding genitals, writhing, smirking, but always inciting more pity than fear. Striking the concluding note, the scene elevates Phaedra’s desire to the realm of the divine and thereby excuses it, just as the mortals of myth have no choice but to “excuse” the gods their lust and raping of desirable nymphs.
This seems to be Warlikowski’s intention in this project, where we can choose not to like the Phaedras we meet, but are asked to look for the exceptional in the women Huppert has invested with her commitment and range. Mouawad’s Phaedra might appear risible tottering around, moaning with desire, in a huge blond wig and bloodstained slip, yet she can bring her Hippolytus (a feral Gaël Kamilindi) to offer up his life for her. Kane’s queen is an immaculately groomed doll who is not afraid to dive into her Hippolytus’ muck (which Andrzej Chyra gives us in spades) but her desire is hardly worse than his self-debasement and cruelty. The final Phaedra on stage is Racine’s tragic queen, abused by events and herself but exquisitely aware of her dilemma.
By definition almost, this production is set up to a meet a predictably different reception on this side of the Atlantic (the show premiered at Paris’ Théâtre de l’Odéon last spring). Huppert is a living goddess in France where the art of seduction also happens to be a cultural treasure. Phaedra is a woman in love, and Huppert her chic interpreter. Un point, c’est tout. American audiences are more likely to cry foul at gratuitous exploitation and violence, although far more sex and gore is alluded to or simply recounted than is graphically depicted. I found the production fairly tame in comparison to other Warlikowski productions (the scorching (A)pollonia comes to mind). Audiences were equally split at BAM; the many empty seats after the intermission were practically jumped upon by those who stayed to applaud the performance of one of the great film and theater actresses today. Like the queen she portrays, in Phaedra(s), Huppert proves unhindered by convention or age, with a bigger appetite for risk-taking and the challenge and vulnerability of live performance than many a younger actress.
As the Wooster Group once called the game in its post-modern techno-cool version of Phaedra, “To you, the birdie!” The French version of that sentiment is: “A vous de jouer!” implying pleasure, but Anglos would underscore the responsibility of making the right move. And as they would say, “The ball is in your court.”