Catherine Castellanos is Catherine and Keith Burkland is Antonio in the world premiere of Adam Bock’s Phadera, a Shotgun Players production at the Ashby Stage. Below: Patrick Alparone (left) is Paulie, a prodigal son returned to the home of his father (Burkland) and stepmother (Castellanos). Photos by Pak Han
The sensational zing of the Phaedra myth has always come from the incestuous relationship at the story’s heart: Phaedra is secretly in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. When that love becomes less of a secret, tragedy ensues.
Everyone loves a titillating love story, especially when there’s a taboo to be wrestled to the ground. Euripides apparently wrote two plays involving Phaedra, but only one, Hippolytus, survives. Then, in the late 17th century, Racine wrote a version of Phaedra that has aroused audience interest for more than 300 years. Eugene O’Neill had fun with the Phaedra story in his pulpy Desire Under the Elms, and now Adam Bock, one of North America’s most intriguing playwrights, puts his own stamp on the tale.
Bock reunites with Berkeley’s Shotgun Players for the world premiere of his Phaedra, and though Bock has a long history with Shotgun (his Swimming in the Shallows will always be a Shotgun highlight for me), this new drama finds him working in mature playwright mode, with echoes of Pinter and Albee bouncing through the silences and percolating under the familial tension.
A classical Greek story now resides in Connecticut, more specifically in the well-appointed home of Catherine and Antonio (the spectacular two-level set is by Nina Ball and its elegance is just a degree or two above chilly). He’s a judge and she’s a businesswoman (she goes to work but we never quite know what she does). He has a son from a previous marriage, and together they have a daughter whose off at boarding school.
We learn from the opening narration, delivered by housekeeper Olibia (the precisely effective Trish Mulholland), that the marriage of Catherine and Antonio was one of convenience, with things like novelty and need being mistaken for passion and love. Many years on, the marriage is tense. He’s kind of an establishment blowhard with a penchant for knocking back scotch. And she’s an impeccably dressed (pricey-looking costumes are by Valera Coble) slab of granite, which is to say, she’s uptight and she’s never seen a coaster that didn’t need readjusting.
Catherine has built walls to barricade her loneliness and mask her regret at creating such an empty life for herself. It’s fascinating to see how Bock has created such an easily relatable modern version of Phaedra without having to apologize for her or make her a monster. It hardly comes as a surprise when we learn that Catherine has secret passions, especially when we see those passions ignited by someone who reminds her of the lost days when her husband – not to mention her future – was sexy and full of hope.
Director Rose Riordan exposes the danger and damage in this fine, upstanding family, and in addition to the gorgeous physical production (including sharp lighting and projections by Lucas Krech and white noise sound design by Hannah Birch Carl) she elicits some fine performances from her cast.
Keith Burkland as Antonio comes across as a violent man even if his lashing out is nothing more than verbal. There’s an exchange with his wayward son Paulie (the brooding, vulnerable Patrick Alparone) that makes the audience gasp as if there had been actual physical contact. Alparone’s Paulie, fresh out of rehab and working diligently to make his sobriety stick this time, is the real victim here, a child of parents so caught up in their own internal messes that they have no empathy for his.
Mulholland is an invaluable supporting player as the nattering housekeeper who cares for this family in ways well beyond her cooking and vacuuming. And Cindy Im is a bracing presence as Taylor, a friend of Paulie’s from rehab and a hopeful love interest.
Which brings us to Catherine Castellanos as Catherine, the complex motor of this story. Long one of the most powerful actors found on a Bay Area stage, Castellanos commands attention with the slightest movement or the loudest cry. Here, she is mostly restrained and absolutely heartbreaking. When emotions finally break through the carefully composed surface, there’s no escaping the intensity of lust, of sadness, of need. In many ways, she’s addicted to her secret love of Paulie because it’s the one connection that awakens feelings in her other than depression or boredom or swampy regret.
She can’t go to rehab to deal with this addiction, but she can spray it into the world like poison. Watching Castellanos do anything on stage is interesting, but this is rich, savage material, and her approach mixes elements of the damaged human, the compassionate woman and the unwitting monster to such effect that it’s hard not to love Catherine for all her flaws…until she goes far too far.
Bock’s Phaedra fascinates and compels. It titillates and terrorizes. It connects powerfully to the ancient and finds eloquent, emotional life in the here and now.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Adam Bock’s Phaedra continues through Oct. 23 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$26. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.
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My impression differs markedly — which is notable since my views usually tracks yours to some degree. Here I agree with the technical merit of the set, sound, and so on. I also think the actors did well enough and I particularly think Ms. Im did well with what little she had. (Ms. Mulholland is always good, of course).
I make a point to avoid all reviews before seeing a show, on the theory that my reaction will be more genuine (Shotgun foils this in part by its emblazoning of the “little man” on its building sometimes). I also do no research until after I see a show for the same reason (e.g., I was aware of but did not pursue the French and Greek predecessor works before the show). I certainly looked at reviews and did a bit of research prior to this post, well over a week after I saw Phaedra.
So as a play in a theater, Phaedra disappointed. Upon research and reflection, the word that may best summarize my criticism is catharsis. That was missing for me. The characters were not well developed so there was little change to experience in the climax. The last scene was designed to bring the emotions to a boil, but I found myself almost amused. It simply made little sense to me that based strictly on what I witnessed on stage (not considering what these characters were supposed to represent in Racine’s version or the original Greek) that their actions, emotions, and words were consistent or genuine. And that is the fault of the text. And a little of direction.
Maybe I saw an off night, but I doubt it. Would the reviews be positive without Mr. Bock’s name attached to the script? Without Shotgun’s impressive reputation? (I am a long-term supporter) Without really sexy references to the Greek and French roots in promotional materials and reviews? I do wonder.
I note that my views are in a decided minority (many positive reviews) but not entirely unique (see the shotgun site, which includes my immediate post-viewing post).
Thank you for your thoughtful response, Tom.
I understand what you mean about catharsis — the slide into the heavy-duty Greek drama in Act 2 was pretty swift. But I was so caught up in Catherine’s plight that I did get a sense of catharsis.
The interference of the Greek imprint on the modern story was felt here in “Phaedra” but not nearly as much as it’s felt in TheatreWorks’ “Clementine in the Lower 9,” which is based on Aeschylus’ “Agamemnon.” It was an interesting contrast to me, having seen both plays within a few days of each other. Bock was, in my opinion, much more skillful and successful with his adaptation than Dan Dietz was with “Clementine” (I’ll post a link to my Palo Alto Weekly review on Friday).