PHEDRE, Keyhole Theatre Company, and ANDROMACHE, Keyhole Theatre Company. You can’t help but cheer the ambition of mounting two tumultuous five-act Jean Racine tragedies in rotating repertory on a tiny budget with the same eight-person cast. And pairing the plays, newly translated by Barbara Carlisle, is an astute choice. Andromache, written in 1667, was Racine’s first great success after breaking with the strict Jansenist sect, which frowned upon ungodly endeavors like theater. Phedre, from 1677, was his last before returning to the fold and giving up secular theater for good. Both plays revolve around passionate characters caught in moral quandaries. Andromache can save her son’s life only by forsaking her countrymen and marrying her mortal enemy–King Pyrrhus, who’d killed her husband. Queen Phedre tries to resist her “monstrous” passion for her stepson but ultimately destroys herself and the object of her love.
Any company would be hard-pressed to attain the dramatic heights of these plays. But in the audiovisual room of the Josephinum high school for girls, surrounded by bleached paneling and lit by a row of clamp-on lamps, director Frank Merle’s scrappy young performers don’t stand much of a chance. Both productions run for two hours yet lack shape and nuance.
Despite Mary Bliss Mather’s committed performance in the title role, Phedre is less satisfying than Andromache, in large part because the cast plays Racine’s mythic tragedy as psychological realism. As a result the work’s titanic passions are as ill fitting as the actors’ Guffman-esque togas. The formal modern attire in Andromache seems to steer the actors toward understatement, and they seem more comfortable with Racine’s poetic dialogue. But the play’s intricate backstory, laid out in the first few scenes, is extremely difficult to follow–a problem compounded by the cast’s general unpreparedness on opening night. Unless you know the history of the Trojan War backward and forward, you may spend most of the evening scratching your head.