Arts & Events

Eye From the Aisle: PHAEDRA at Shotgun Players—heart-rending, masterful drama

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday October 04, 2011 - 09:42:00 AM
Patrick Alparone and Catherine Castellos
Pak Han
Patrick Alparone and Catherine Castellos

Taking a play that most literary folk know the myth of and turning it contemporary is a tricky undertaking. Adam Bock has masterfully accomplished this in his new play PHAEDRA produced by the Shotgun Players at the Ashby Stage across from the Ashby BART.  

Euripides wrote two plays about the clash between Aphrodite and Artemis. If you didn’t pay homage to a god, they messed with you. It’s a metaphor to keeping balance in your life. 

The old story: Hippolytus, the son of Theseus and his late wife Hippolyta the Amazon, worships the Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt and Chastity, and eschews the pleasure of love. This pisses off the Love Goddess who makes his step-mom fall in love with Hippolytus—which can, I understand, create a difficult domestic situation. Roman Seneca wrote a play on the myth, Racine in 17th C. France wrote another; I remember being a teenager in 1962 and overwhelmed by the passion and taboo topic of the black-and-white film with Melina Mercouri and Tony Perkins that set it modern.  

The set reflects the mindset of the people who live in this pristine, orderly, and richly appointed house, beige and spare, and the mistress who urges coasters for every drink. Catherine is a chicly dressed business woman whose “hey-day in the blood” is by no means tame, married to an older man Antonio whose bed and worldview she does not share. Her powerful, judgmental and often absent husband is a modern equivalent of Theseus, if not so heroic and much more Republican. Into this strained tinderbox, fresh out of rehab, comes the prodigal son Paulie, still on drug probation.  

Rose Riordan’s directing is incisive while giving the actors freedom and time to invest their emotional expression of Bock’s tight script, and her staging fully uses the genius set in order to tell the story in pictures. Her encouragement of natural movement and behavior subtly and effectively draws us in.  

The acting is ensemble and superior. The title character is larger than life, a dominant woman in a struggle with an alpha male; she has a robust and buxom body wasted without being touched, her thick, black hair pinned tight cries out to be loosed and have the cascades fall. 

Catherine Castellanos is the perfect Greek domina, set up for a fall into frenzy, a loss of balance into the arms of Eros with no one there to catch her. With hair up or guard down she allows us to see her internal churnings, her moments of embarrassment and doubt, her unguarded Chardonnay-encouraged acting-out. Her voice changes, her bright eyes flash, weep, grow cold. It is a daunting character to embody as written by Bock, and she takes it to a classic level. 

Trish Mulholland as the Cockney maid sets the scene with a show-starting exposition, gives voice to our fears, and does all those things that the chorus performed on a hillside in Athens. She plays the part of the Nurse, essential in all female-titled antique drama, who gives warning and often bad advice, which, when acted upon, brings down their world. Warm and officious, pouring out love, she is the glue that is holding the household together. Too friendly and motherly, she is alternately cherished and spurned, like any servant can expect, and comes back to lick the hand of the master. When compared to her diva Arkadina, in “Seagull in the Hamptons” at Shotgun a season ago, we see her range to be spectacular. 

Lighting by Lucas Benjamin Krech and sound by Hannah Birch Carl allow us to take the time to feel the impact as the clouds gather and the light changes and washes over us in the aftermath of an emotional moment. The Chekhovian sounds resonate in our ears, our chests, our depths. I could not at first discern one of the haunting tones; then I recognized it as the moist finger circling the rim of the wine glass: sensual, ringing, a paean to Dionysus to whom these frenzy plays were made to honor. It is unsettling, not unlike the high-pitch of our nervous systems echoing in our ears in times of extreme stress. 

Nina Ball’s set design has captured the fashionable sterility of the upper-middle-class domicile; it is as if the inhabitants are recreating a temple wherein purification rites are done to bleach out the lurking impurities of life. Her set has an inner-below of Doric columns and marble floors to invoke the culture that spawned drama and its catharsis. Placed at an angle to the audience, Ms. Ball’s set has allowed Director Riordan to make good use of the upstage vertex exits to the rest of the dark house. The actors show the silent desperation and enmity pulsing through the house with their hesitant exits/entrances in the labyrinth. One extraordinary moment was the use of shadows to show Paulie drinking a glass of water in the kitchen: it metaphorically reflected the long shadow he threw over Catherine and the others and gave a nod to Plato’s shadows on the cave wall. 

Maybe I remember too much about Greek theatre and am reading into things, but Valerie Coble’s choice of costumes on Ms. Castellanos were reminiscent of the draping of the chiton and himation we see on statues. Even the skirts worn by Ms. Im seemed peplos-like. Though it is now in fashion to wear boots, the fact that both women are shod in them made me think of the buskins that all the Greeks actors wore; these kothornoi were the grape-pickers boots that were worn to pay further homage to the Wine God. The costumes are all fashionable and pleasing to the eye while furthering character. 

Paulie is our sacrifice, our pharmakos, the innocent (getting clean and sober) who is thrust into the fray and destroyed without having a direct part in the wrongdoing. Bock gives him a diminutive name for a man diminished by his urges and the looming shadow of his father. Lanky, good-looking Patrick Alparone captures the lost boy who is trying to do right, has done his inventory, and is trying to make amends. You can feel his panic and the walls closing in on him in the desperation in his eyes and voice when assaulted and accused from all sides. We can feel his conflict in his body language and his halting speech as he strives to walk the path while every urge moves him to flee. 

Cindy Im, hot off her success in “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven,” brings an erotically charged wryness in the character of Taylor who was in rehab with Paulie and throws herself at him every time they are alone. She is as manipulative as a labor lawyer’s daughter, as strong-willed as Catherine, and sees through the pretense. It’s rewarding to see a talented actress work her way from great basement productions at Impact Theatre up to higher profile parts. 

Keith Burkland plays the Theseus character Antonio as a looming, bigoted, round-shouldered know-it-all (I find the name tellingly ironic since Bock gives him the profession of being a Judge, while he seems not to have a trace of Italian—is this a shot at Anton Scalia and Samuel Anthony Alito?) All business, all opinion a la Fox News, always with a decanted Scotch in his hand, he makes us hate him, then we rue his destruction in the wake of his impulsive lashing-out. 

Here is the most telling and high compliment from E’s daughter who accompanied us. She is from a little place near Biloxi on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and doesn’t get to much theatre; she said, “I could see it from everybody’s point of view.” That is always a touchstone of extraordinary theatre. 

Adam Bock’s PHAEDRA is another jewel in the ever-burgeoning crown of this little theatre company near the Ashby BART, and you will rue it if you miss it for there will be much talk in time to come about this play and this production. 

PHAEDRA by Adam Bock 

At SHOTGUN PLAYERS through October 23. 

1901 Ashby Avenue at Martin Luther King Jr, Way, Berkeley, CA 

510-841-6500 x 303 

John A. McMullen II is a member of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Associations, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and holds and MA in drama from SFSU and an MFA from Carnegie Mellon  

EJ Dunne edits.