The Phaedra Project: No ! I ! Don't ! Want ! To ! Fall ! In ! Love ! With ! You !
Be warned: you might find the interval between entering the room, and the play starting, a bit jarring. The stage is at ground level, the same level as the entrance to the room, and you creepily walk past the actors, motionless on stage, to take your seat. In the background is the sound of water dripping; a sound that will be heard for most of the play.
After you do grab a seat, you might attempt, as I did, to avoid eye contact with the actors: lanky bearded Hippolytus (Nicolas) stands at the right of the stage, while Phaedra (Jacqueline) sits on a standard Ikea wooden chair in the middle of the stage. I suggest you turn your gaze towardsthe feet of the actors, for they are wearing galoshes or "rain boots." Strange gear for an indoor play, but, then again, this is the theatre! Look a bit deeper, and you'll notice that the actors are standing in what can only be described as the world's shallowest pool, probably an inch or two deep.
The first three minutes of the play are perhaps the oddest, for this is when Phaedra, driven wild by her desire, meows like an alley cat. This isn't your standard "I'm hungry meow nom nom nom" of some domesticated house cat; this is a gluttonous growl that wishes to devour, and Phaedra captures in her cry both the pleasure and the pain of seeking for what one desires. Her cry is for Hippolytus, the son of her husband, whom she burns for and wants to ravish, if only to cool herself down.
What makes this play so brilliant is that this struggle between acknowledging one's desire and the act of reaching out to grasp it (spannungsbogen) isn't only constrained to the words these characters utter at each other across the stage; it is also experienced in the way they wrestle with each other's presence on stage.
At times Hippolytus brims with emotion and breaks into dance on stage, the music transforming into a mechanical cacophony that overwhelms the listener, mimicking the desire that consumes him. As a dancer, Nicolas, the actor who portrays Hippolytus, makes full use of his height: he stretches his long body out to contrast with the smaller Jacqueline, and he moves with a grace that you would not naturally expect of someone of his stature.
When together, Phaedra and Hippolytus glide with each other: one moment attracting, the next repelling; pushing, and then pulling; grasping, followed by grappling; alternating between being inert to the other's caresses, to being vibrant when blocking the other's blows. The choreography of these sequences is exquisite, and the balance between Hippolytus manhandling Phaedra, and Phaedra forcing herself onto Hippolytus, keeps the chemistry of these characters visceral.
What makes the choreography even more unique is that all movement on the stage is in fact mitigated through water: on one level water is what separates the characters on stage; on another level, the stage is water and the characters have to wade through it.
Water becomes the gauge of activity: a sudden aggressive attempt to overpower the other is accompanied by a sudden gush of water, while more calmer attempts to seduce are set against the backdrop of slow wading through water. Water absorbs all the energy from the actors, through their characters, and transfers this to the audience in the form of flying droplets or smooth sounds. This pool, or rather the water it contains, is crucial to the play, and the shame is that we do not yet credit inanimate objects. The chair plays a more supportive role, even when not being sat on.
According to Sophie, the director, water becomes the stand-in for desire. Desire, like the cold water on stage, is shocking and not comforting;, it cannot be controlled, and it pervades every facet of their time on stage. These characters might want to keep their composure, but water, like desire, messes up their hair and makeup, makes their clothes stick to their bodies, and even reveals their bodies through their clothing that becomes progressively wetter during the play.
For the actors to have delivered such a high-energy performance while wearing wet clothing - clothing that must have been doubly uncomfortable due to the coolness of the room and the warmth from their exertions - is a testament to their training and their dedication to the role to be able to use, to feel, and to work with the water.
Where this play suffers though, is the gap between the play's description and what one actually encounters on stage.
The official description reads:
A theatre creation freely adapted from the Greek story of two people wrestling with the need to protect their image and with their desire to free fall.
In a watery underworld, Phaedra and Hippolytus spend eternity together, but he's ignoring her. Phaedra recounts her story of her loves from her first, a history teacher in Rotterdam, to her last, the one standing in front of her, for the pleasure of being close to him once more.
It wouldn't be a spoiler to say that while I was expecting Phaedra to list of all her ex-lovers, I believe only two were mentioned, with a special emphasis on her first unrequited love, a teacher from Rotterdam. Furthermore, to provide a physical reason for the existence of water (watery underworld) is not only unnecessary, it also confusing as I originally thought the characters were in a physical location that contained water (underground cavern) as opposed to the water serving as a stage device.
The perfect audience for this play is someone adventurous, and not someone looking more for traditional theatre. The truly adventurous should sit in front, where the proximity to the splashing water and the actors will enhance the play; enjoy this play from afar if you don't want to get wet. Anyone interested in seeing how one can still innovate when it comes to set design should definitely watch this play.
Note: parts of this play are also in French.
The Phaedra Project
No ! I ! Don't ! Want ! To ! Fall ! In ! Love ! With ! You !
MAI (MontrĂ©al arts interculturels) 3680 rue Jean-Mance
11-14 December 20h / 15 December 15h
Director : Sophie Gee
Cast : Phaedra (Jacqueline van de Geer) , Hippolytus (Nicolas Patry)
Tickets $20/ 15 tickets: http://nervoushunter.com/tickets/
Duration: 1 hr
(All Photos courtesy of Svetla Atanasova)