The tragedy of Phaedra might be a couple thousand years old, but it still resonates — particularly in a society that treats “cougars” and “cougar-baiting” as common and prevalent tropes. In Greek myth, the cougar bait was Hippolytus, Phaedra’s hot, disinterested stepson, who became an unwilling object of the title character’s affections. He rejected her; she sought revenge by accusing him of rape. It’s a story of obsessive, malevolent female desire that apparently knows no bounds. In Phaedra’s case, that desire becomes a form of self-immolation.
Playwright Adam Bock tries to rationalize Phaedra’s actions in a new, contemporary production that’s premiering this month in Berkeley, under the auspice of Shotgun Players. Bock used to be a company member but he’s since moved to New York and enjoyed all kinds of success, including an Obie for his 2006 play, The Thugs. Bock based his adaptation on a 17th-century version of the story by French dramatist Jean Racine, which really isn’t that different from the Greek version except that it’s composed in five acts, which Bock condensed into two. His Phaedra takes place in the sleek 21st century, in a sterile, all-white set designed to near-perfection by Nina Ball. Directed by Rose Riordan, it has an unhappy marriage as its centerpiece, a wealthy but negligent father, a stepmother whose crisp, stylish garments barely conceal her unhappiness, and a stepson just arrived home from rehab. All the combustible elements are in place.
Phaedra — or Catherine, as she’s called in this production — might seem like a misguided character, but her actions are understandable, given the circumstances. And actress Catherine Castellanos plays her formidably — as an elegant, slow-moving creature whose outer polish hides her inner desolation. In an opening monologue, Catherine’s housekeeper, Olibia (Trish Mulholland) explains that she married her husband, Antonio (Keith Burkland) in order to get over a lost love. He married her because she looked just interesting enough to pass muster. Catherine glides about the house, correcting small details like the pillows that need plumping, or the mirror that needs adjusting, or the drinks that need coasters placed beneath them. She conveys more, in movement, than Olibia does in exposition, even by the way she descends a staircase — like a child gingerly stepping into a cold swimming pool.
Castellanos manages to show Phaedra’s motivations, and capture her predatory demeanor, without illuminating much about the character’s psychology. That’s partly a result of the dynamic that Riordan engineered, by casting Patrick Alparone as Paulie, Catherine’s druggie stepson and love interest. Alparone has the unique misfortune of being classically good-looking, with a face that’s made for Hollywood, and a body that’s small enough to render him defenseless. He doesn’t really look like an ex-con and erstwhile addict, but he certainly looks like the kind of guy who could break up a marriage. Consequently, Catherine’s behavior reads as lust, rather than love. She’s bored and lonely, and she projects all that dissatisfaction onto Paulie.
That’s a perfectly believable scenario, albeit a little shallower than it could be. Alparone does his best to look alternately like a trapped animal and an unwitting seducer. As Paulie, he mimics his father’s mannerisms to a degree that Catherine finds enticing, even in the way he totters backward or sticks his thumbs in his pockets. Overall, though, it’s hard to see what draws her toward him. The original Phaedra was about blind, vehement lust, but this one seems more plodding and purposeful, so it would help if the two characters exchanged so much as a meaningful glance before their first major confrontation. The sexual tension between Paulie and his female sidekick, Taylor (played by Cindy Im) seems a lot more palpable, although granted, he rejects her, too.
As a writer, Bock exults in small, dense descriptions, most of which are so good that he can’t resist inserting them right into the dialogue. At one point, Paulie describes his half-sister’s bedroom where he’s had to shack up since coming home from rehab. It’s never shown, but easy to visualize: “There’s a picture of the rock star with that stupid haircut and she pasted a big red construction paper heart on it. I sit in her room, it’s all frilly and pink and the wall-to-wall is like this powder blue. Over there there’s a little tiny baby bed with her fucking teddy bears and this old doll. There are little tiny china frames everywhere with pictures of her and her field hockey friends and one of her on a horse and pictures of my dad and her smiling.”
Less engaging are the character monologues, which create an unnecessary break in the action. We don’t really need Olibia to tell us that Catherine and Antonio have an unhappy marriage; that’s obvious from the opening scene, when she circles the couch while he buries himself in an iPhone. Nor do we need Taylor to talk about what drew her to Paulie in rehab, or Antonio to explain his uncompassionate world view, which is also evident from the first scene. The only monologue that doesn’t seem frivolous is Phaedra’s speech at the end, and even that could have been abbreviated.
Phaedra is a very good play that could be a great play if Bock would just cut some of the exposition, and if Riordan would force a little more chemistry between her two lead actors. The other devices all work, from Ball’s set pieces to Lucas Benjamin Krech’s cloud silhouettes, which stream across the walls to indicate the passage of time. That’s a self-consciously modern touch, but it also makes the play seem more light and ethereal. Phaedra may be a fashionable sex predator, but she’s still culled from myth.