'Phaedra's Lust' Brings Us Ancient Rome's Original Cougar
Popularly characterized these days as the original "cougar" in western literature, the ancient Phaedra character still resonates on contemporary stages as the embodiment of overpowering feminine sexual desire. With "Phaedra's Lust," Archway Studio/Theatre Artistic Director Steven Sabel has skillfully adapted this classic story from the ancients Seneca and Euripides, by way of 17th-century French playwright Jean Racine, in an enjoyably unmodernized new production that lets the drama hit us over the head on its own terms.
And the story does pack a wallop. With Athenian warrior-king Theseus presumed dead in battle, his queen Phaedra (Anna Walters) can no longer restrain her, well, lust for Theseus's strapping son Hippolytus (Benjamin Campbell), who, for his part, is entirely in love with Aricia (Branda Lock), the enslaved daughter of Theseus's vanquished rival for power. Shortly after Hippolytus rejects Phaedra's desperately impassioned seduction play, word gets back to Athens that Theseus (Elias McCabe) is actually alive and about to return in triumph.
Fearful of what Theseus might do to his beloved queen if he finds out she made the moves on his son, Phaedra's servant-confidant Oenone (Tammy Goolsbey) tells him it was Hippolytus who went after Phaedra, not the other way around, and plants evidence to bolster her account of these events. Deaf to all Hippolytus's protestations of innocence, Theseus calls down Neptune's wrath upon his once-beloved boy and banishes him into perilous exile, only then to find out the true story from Phaedra herself.
While some of the cast in this straightforward production rely a bit too heavily on the familiar cache of stock dramatic gestures, facial expressions and unmodulated vocal emoting, director Sabel's pacing always remains brisk enough to keep any of the scenery from being chewed. As Hippolytus's best friend Theramenes, Vonzell Carter powerfully delivers a monologue toward the end of the play with a kind of line-by-line narrative detail missing in other crucial moments. And Goolsbey rather dominates most of the scenes that she is in without stepping on other actors' toes.
The proceedings are very well served, too, by a perpetual soundtrack of ambient electronic music "coordinated" by Annie Freeman which runs throughout the show, helping the performers establish an appropriately momentous tone for the great high-stakes drama that's traveled 2500 years through time to confront us anew.