The Boston Phoenix
November 26 - December 3, 1998

[Dance Reviews]

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Risky voyage

Liz Diamond and Randy Danson steer ART's Phaedra boat

by Scott T. Cummings

theater folks A woman harbors a secret passion for a younger man, a passion so consuming that it's destroying her even as she resists acting on it. Phaedra, wife of Theseus of Athens, half-sister of Crete's fabled Minotaur, granddaughter of the sun itself, is the heroine of the most famous of French tragedies. Starting this weekend, the American Repertory Theatre marks the beginning of its 20th Loeb Stage season with its production of Jean Racine's Phaedra, a tragedy so austere and uncompromising in its vision that few American theaters would dare to attempt it.

If the recent shenanigans of Bill and Monica manifest the Ridiculous in sexual intrigue, Racine's treatment of the Greek myth of Phaedra and her love for stepson Hippolytus pursues the Sublime. Just as Molière is seen as the transcendent genius of comedy at the time of Louis XIV, Racine represents the apotheosis of French neo-classical tragedy. His characters are often caught in a psychological struggle between the absolute demands of reason and passion, an ordeal so torturous as to render their suffering heroic. Phaedra, Racine's masterpiece, was first produced in 1677, shortly after which the playwright abandoned his craft in favor of an appointment as historiographer to the king.

Although theater is best viewed as a collaborative enterprise, the ART Phaedra can be approached, at least initially, as a tale of two women: its director, Liz Diamond, and its leading lady, Randy Danson. ART regulars were introduced to Danson when she played Clytaemnestra in The Oresteia several seasons ago; she returned last season as Agave in The Bacchae and Mae Garga in In the Jungle of Cities. Diamond is a newcomer to ART (and the first woman to direct an ART mainstage production in more than five years).

Without necessarily setting out to do so, Liz Diamond has established herself in the 1990s as a journeyman regional/resident theater director. Her career began in New York, where she worked mostly with contemporary experimental writers at such downtown venues as BACA, La Mama ETC, P.S. 122, and the Women's Project. Her first regional-theater job came in 1992, when Stan Wojewodski Jr., artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, invited her to direct Suzan-Lori Parks's The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World at the Yale Rep. That led to a continuing appointment to the directing faculty of the Yale School of Drama and a position as resident director at the Yale Rep.

"It was a leap of faith on Stan's part," Diamond recalls when we sit down to talk in Harvard Square. "He said to me, `Look, you're at a place in your work as an artist that you should be doing larger-scale classical work. You need to stretch in that way, and this is an opportunity for you to grow.' It was dumfounding." Welcoming the chance to work "with more experienced actors and with designers who actually have money to realize visions," Diamond went on to mount productions for the Yale Rep of Seamus Heaney's The Cure at Troy, Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth, Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, Molière's The School for Wives, and Parks's The America Play (also seen at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in New York).

When ART artistic director Robert Brustein invited her to come up to Cambridge and direct Phaedra, she embraced it as "a welcome shift" and another chance to stretch. Having worked almost exclusively at Yale for the past five years, she knew the ART gig would serve as a reality check and a budge out of her comfort zone. "At a certain point you just don't know where you are in the wider world."

Plus her ART stint represents something of a homecoming. Diamond was born only blocks from Harvard's Loeb Drama Center, at Mount Auburn Hospital. She grew up in Reading, graduated from Reading Memorial High School, and went on to college at Wellesley. Her parents still live in Reading, in the house she grew up in, and she has a sister in Brookline. "I feel very oriented towards this region. I come up here all the time, but since I left at age 20 I haven't really been back to live or to work."

As for her work on Phaedra, Diamond explains that she sees the play as "an anatomy of passion -- in an almost clinical way. When I first read it, I had just done Seamus Heaney's exquisite rendering of the Philoctetes myth [The Cure at Troy]. I found that play so consoling and healing, so salutary. When I read Phaedra, I thought, `There's no redemption here. She's weak and she destroys herself and everyone around her. This is too stark. It is grotesque.' But I have come to find something bracing about it.

"One of the things that has been surprising is just how primal a play it is. Here we are doing this play in iambic pentameter, translated from the strict rhymes of Racine's Alexandrine verse, written in the 17th century, which I certainly think of as this ordered metropolitan-centered universe surrounding the Sun King. Yet the play is unbelievably raw. It is about divulgence and withholding, but I don't think I anticipated just how much emotion and risk-taking was required."

Much of that emotion will be provided by Danson, who has a well-established track record of portraying women of dignity and deep feeling. In addition to Clytaemnestra and Agave, she has played Masha in Three Sisters, Arkadina in The Seagull, Shen Te/Shui Ta in The Good Person of Szechuan, and the Duchess of Malfi. She also created the role of Phaedra in Elizabeth Egloff's contemporary adaptation of the myth, which was first seen at the Vineyard Theatre in New York three years ago. Danson admits that at moments she has had to stop herself in ART rehearsals from making judgments about Racine's Phaedra based on her experience of Egloff's. "It is a different Phaedra certainly," she says. "I think the primary difference is that [Egloff's] Phaedra ends up being crazier, more psychotic, around the bend, as it were. She was not perhaps as sympathetic or as protected as Racine's heroine."

Drawing on the image of the Minotaur, Danson nevertheless finds something "monstrous" in Phaedra's passion for Hippolytus that reflects an irreducible aspect of womankind, something that involves "a kind of universal shame that women feel vis à vis their own sexuality. We traditionally are the sex that is asked rather than the sex that asks. I think that it is in no way natural or easy or calm for women to say, `I see something, I want it, and I reach out for it,' in terms of sexual appetite and sexual power. I am sure there are women who are exceptions to this, but I think this is what is going on for Phaedra. What frightens and appalls her so much is the strength of her own desires and appetites more than that they are morally or legally wrong."

Although Danson's professional path has crossed Diamond's before, this is the first time they have worked together on a full production. The rapport and mutual respect that has developed between them suggests it will not be the last. "What's great about Randy," says Diamond, "is that she never sets out to let you know what a terrible idea you have. She'll try anything and completely embrace it. She is completely courageous in that way."

For her part, Danson finds something different in Diamond's approach to her job. "Directors, particularly male directors, tend to take the `daddy' role. Traditionally directors have been men, and it has naturally happened that way. They're in charge and they always have the answer and they do the `daddy' thing, which can sometimes be comforting and nice but also sometimes does not always allow for as free an exchange in the room as might otherwise occur. I've also worked with women directors who take on the `daddy' role, but Liz doesn't as much and I really appreciate that. She's very open and honest and out there in rehearsal in a way that is gutsy, especially when you are trying to maneuver a boat as big as this one around the room."

The Phaedra `boat' docks at the Loeb Drama Center on November 27 and runs through January 14, being joined in repertory on December 11 by Andrei Serban's production of The Merchant of Venice. Phaedra features yet another brand new translation by Paul Schmidt, America's foremost theater translator, as well as designs by Riccardo Hernandez (sets), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Michael Chybowski (lighting), and Christopher Walker (sound).