By Jean Racine, translated by Robert David MacDonald. At: New World Repertory Theater—Theatre Building Chicago. Phone: 630-663-1489 ; $20-$25. Runs through: Feb. 14
The challenge of Phèdra or any production more than 300 years old is finding a renewed purpose to bring it back to the stage. The New World Repertory Theater aspires to enhance its production of French playwright Jean Racine's 1677 Greek tragedy through Laban Movement Analysis, an intensive study of body movement and its connection to thought and emotion. A story of irrepressible passion and shame at the hands of the gods, Phèdra seems an ideal choice to explore movement-based expressions of the inner torment of its ill-fated characters, but the effectiveness of Laban's theory in this production varies. Much of its cast could use some more command of Racine's visceral poetry before exploring the ways it might manifest itself through movement.
After a local run in November, the Downers Grove-based theater company now tries Phèdra before a city audience at the Theatre Building Chicago. It's a young cast that will likely gel more with a young urban audience, but the flipside is the inexperience. Robert David MacDonald's translation is clear but riddled with difficult couplets and to self-impose the challenge of Laban Movement Analysis as well makes for a difficult task. It's one achievement to grasp the meter while projecting all that internal conflict and another to create movement that coincides with it seamlessly.
Consequently, director and certified Laban Movement instructor Alison Henderson's choices of where to emphasize the movement are hit or miss. When used in exposition such as the choreographed prologue of the goddess Venus cursing Phèdra on her wedding day to fall madly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, it feels like mere pantomime. When Phèdra ( Sarah Pinkham ) uses all kinds of arm movements to signify how she feels covered with the filth of shame, it's an interesting supplement to the language.
Pinkham, however, doesn't quite command the attention expected of a titular character in a Greek tragedy. Her madness is more temperamental; she is not pitiable or sadly misunderstood. The direction doesn't help her either: When she rips the tapestry off a wooden post and reveals it to be a cross and in only the third act leans back on it as if crucifying herself, if Phèdra were ever to be seen as a martyr, that symbolism is furthermore ruined.
The production's best artistic choice is including Venus ( Laura Merchut ) as a character. She enters intermittently throughout Phèdra's scenes, controlling her movements, physically demonstrating the gods' antagonistic power over her will and the hopelessness of Phèdra's predicament. In all other aspects, that sense of powerlessness, the magnitude of the inner conflict, never fully reaches the audience.
Phèdra is a well-meaning production but a bit too ambitious. As hard as this cast likely trained to learn Laban's theory, applying it to a Racine play that is contingent upon its actors' ability to grasp the language and communicate great internal struggle to the audience is quite an undertaking.