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LET THE GAMES BEGIN

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There’s nothing like a classic tale of incest and infidelity to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Based on Paul Schmidt’s translation of Racine’s "Phedre," and starring Frances McDormand ("Fargo," "Almost Famous") and Willem Dafoe ("Shadow of the Vampire," "Platoon"), "To You, The Birdie (Phedre)" is about the tormented, secret crush that Queen Phedre (Kate Valk) has on her stepson Hippolytos (Ari Fliakos).

"To You, The Birdie" is being presented by The Wooster Group, a 25-year-old collaboration of artists based in Manhattan, in the slick, new 250-seat performance space - a former spice-milling factory - operated by Arts at St. Ann’s at 38 Water St. in DUMBO.

Brooklyn should welcome such a spectacular play with open arms.

While Hippolytos is similarly lovelorn for Phedre, neither has confessed their feelings to the other. Phedre confides in her handmaiden Oenone (McDormand) and Hippolytos confides in his buddy Theramenes (Scott Shepherd). Phedre is in all-out agony over her unrequited love, and just as the two lovers seem about to consummate their love, King Theseus (Dafoe) returns from his long voyage.

Both Phedre and Hippolytos are consumed with guilt over their adulterous - but unrequited - lust. Phedre, on the advice of Oenone, tells Theseus she’s been raped by his son, so he’ll send him away. Instead, Theseus calls on the gods to destroy his son. When the truth comes to light, the dead are piling up. This is, after all, French playwright Jean Baptiste Racine’s (1639-1699) 1677 version of the Greek tragedy.

While the well-known plot may sound straightforward, it’s the telling of the story that is refreshingly new, baffling and yet beguiling. Director Elizabeth LeCompte incorporates clever sound effects, video and choreographed badminton games into the story in the vein of the Wooster Group’s usual, avant-garde style.

While Phedre, played by Valk in a chillingly accomplished performance, is obviously tormented and overwrought, her lines are delivered into a microphone by Shepherd in a deadpan, falsetto voice. His voiceover serves to make each of her thoughts sound comically irrational and high-strung.

Phedre’s love sickness is underscored by all of the medical apparatuses employed by her courtiers to aid her. There are wheelchairs, intravenous bags and tubing. Constant attention is being drawn to Phedre’s buttocks and whatever could be coming out into the tubing, the mimed enemas or the bedpans.

The director continues to poke fun at the tragedy of these very fallible humans by using a video monitor to show a face looking down at the action. At the opening of the play, a monitor displays the genitalia under the kilts of the two Greek men while they are talking of love.

For those of you attending the play just to see the movie stars - Academy Award winner McDormand and multiple Oscar-nominee Dafoe - you won’t be disappointed. Both have plenty of stage time and turn in great performances: McDormand is the pragmatic, scheming friend offering stern advice to her helpless, sickly Queen Phedre, and Dafoe is the thunder-footed King, stripped to the loin cloth. Though his face shows the anguish of a disappointed father and betrayed husband, his hand literally searches for answers in his servant’s blouse.

Neither actor is a stranger to cutting-edge theater. Dafoe is a founding member of The Wooster Group and McDormand starred opposite Billy Crudup in the Blue Light Theater Group’s probing, hours and hours-long 1998 production of "Oedipus."

John Collins, Geoff Abbas and Jim Dawson all deserve kudos for the incredible, cartoonish sound effects, including canned laughter. As Theseus returns to his kingdom, each footstep resounds with thunder a la Godzilla movies. The staging, by Jim Findlay, quite ingeniously adapts to the warehouse space. It is a mobile landscape of aluminum track, rolling palm trees, sliding Plexiglas panels and omnipresent video monitors.

The producers quote Racine as saying of his work, "The mere thought of sin is as horrible as sin itself." Though there is much anguished posturing in the play, there are director LeCompte’s madcap moments of lightness when the actors pick up racquets and play badminton. A sexy but mechanical female voice declares "FAULT!" when a tweeting birdie hits the stage. The novel use of badminton underscores each character’s failings - Hippolytos’ youthful impatience and Phedre’s lack of strength to even hold a racquet.

Ultimately Valk’s portrayal of Queen Phedre is not a sympathetic one, but a display of the ineffectuality and decadence of royalty. Her emotional excesses cry out for Oenone’s reasoned advice, but even reason meets a fatal end when it comes to love.

So much is unearthed in the Wooster Group’s searing portrayal that the audience goes home pondering Greek myth, 17th-century France and contemporary, American materialism. And perhaps one becomes just the slightest bit afraid of love - and monarchies.

 

The Wooster Group’s production of "To You, The Birdie (Phedre)" continues through March 9, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm and Saturdays at 2 pm, at St. Ann’s Warehouse, 38 Water St. at Dock Street in DUMBO. General admission tickets are $25-$30. For reservations, call (212) 966-3651. For more information, visit www.thewoostergroup.org on the Web. The Rice Bar, in the St. Ann’s lobby, is open for food and drink before and after the show. For more information about Arts at St. Ann’s, call (718) 858-2424.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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