In Phèdre, French poet Jean Racine combined Greek tragedy with good old-fashioned Christian guilt and came up with the most powerful depiction of sexual obsession ever to appear on the stage. Euripides and Seneca had dramatized the myth earlier and, as a matter of fact, in the same week Racine’s play opened in Paris in 1677, a rival Phèdre financed by his enemies also debuted, to a fuller house. No matter—in terms of tragedy, psychological insight, theological complexity, and shear heat, Racine bests them all. And a new adaptation by J. Nicole Brooks for Lookingglass Theatre Company does little to threaten his supremacy.
In basic outline, Brooks follows Racine’s version of the story, which charts the hell that breaks loose when the Athenian queen Phèdre (Fedra, in Brooks’s spelling) develops a serious case of the hots for Hippolytus, her husband’s half-breed son by Antiope, queen of the Amazons. Making good use of his Jansenist training, with its emphasis on human depravity, Racine brilliantly transforms his source material by suffusing it with a pervasive and well-nigh unendurable sense of guilt. His Phèdre burns with misplaced passion, but she’s also tortured, even before taking action, by a distinctly Christian conviction that she’s inherently, irrevocably corrupt. This is what lends the tragedy its psychological intensity and its aura of a fever dream.
Brooks largely dispenses with Racine’s interiority, leaving her with what amounts to a lurid and somewhat baffling melodrama. She sets her version in Haiti, a potentially evocative location for a story that has elements of mysticism, miscegenation, and conquest. But apart from brief bursts of multilingualism and some political unrest, she fails to capitalize on the setting.
Voodoo and Roman Catholicism are both practiced in Haiti, which offers some pretty interesting opportunities for a story rife with both original sin and love’s dark magic. But neither faith merits a mention. Nor does the country’s history of frequent coups, its poverty, or the divide between dark and lighter-skinned inhabitants. (Hippolytus is mocked and mistrusted for having a Middle Eastern mother, but that has little to do with traditional West Indian racial tensions.) Part of the reason Haiti is so unrecognizable here is that Brooks has set her play in a future in which it has become the most powerful nation on earth. But, little is done with the futuristic setting either—though we’re reminded several times, for unclear reasons, that birds have gone extinct.
Where Brooks does succeed is in the liveliness of her dialogue, a mix of high and coarse diction. “Methinks you have a crush,” someone says, or, following a long lament, “Well, this’ll certainly be a long night. Shots?” Fedra can describe herself one minute as that “crazed junkie bitch who can’t keep it together” while managing in the next some lovely lines describing her beloved as “bronzed as if the sun had licked him entirely.”
But Brooks sacrifices the shattering power of Racine’s play by locating the engine of the characters’ destruction outside of their own heads and hearts. However much the characters may blame the gods for their suffering, the tragedy is more effective if we get the sense that they unravel from within. Brooks undermines this by making Aphrodite a character—who, in Laura Eason’s staging, paces about on a platform above the Mediterranean-style blue-and-white set whenever anybody mentions the gods. At climactic moments, she even controls Fedra’s words and movement as if the queen were the helpless puppet of a capricious child. This minimizes Fedra’s guilt and takes the story out of the realm of multifaceted tragedy and back into static myth.
Other external devices intervene as well. Palace intrigue and the struggle for succession play bigger roles here than in Phèdre—a positive only in that it means more stage time for Fedra’s Machiavellian servant Enone, played with feline cunning by Lisa Tejero. Also, hoary melodramatic conceits—misplaced belongings, timely interruptions, crossed communications—move Brooks’s plot, whereas in Racine they’re incidental to the passion consuming everything in its path.
This ends up flattening the characters. Fedra’s husband Theseus is little more than a mass of rage. Hippolytus is reduced to a Goody Two-shoes, what shades of depth he has deriving from the intelligence and naturally regal bearing Anthony Fleming III brings to the role. Most damagingly, we never fully sense the monstrousness of Fedra’s damning thought crimes. Brooks—who also plays the title role—can make her seem angry, horny, funny, nervous, and pitiful. But consumed and deformed by guilt and lust? For that, you’ll have to go to Racine.