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Seventeenth century French neo-classical tragedy never has been popular with English-speaking audiences. Owing to the strict structural formulae which it follows, it's perceived by many as declamatory bombast with little stage action, fit more for reading than performance. The work of the genre's greatest masters -- Pierre Corneille and his younger contemporary, Jean Racine -- rarely is seen in the United States. To my certain knowledge, Racine's finest play, Phèdre, dating from 1677, hasn't been professionally produced in Chicago in at least 35 years, and perhaps never at all. Very few of this city's theatergoers have seen Phèdre -- and those attending the new Court Theatre production by JoAnne Akalaitis still won't have seen it.

Based on a play by Euripides, the story is this: Phèdre, second wife of Theseus, King of Athens, falls madly and obsessively in love with her handsome but virginal stepson, Hippolytus. When he rejects her advances -- not only impure but also a betrayal of honor -- Phèdre allows her servant to accuse Hippolytus of rape before Theseus, who calls on Neptune's vengeance and banishes Hippolytus. Theseus learns the truth only after Neptune destroys Hippolytus and Phèdre poisons herself.

Akalaitis is considered an innovative and thoughtful director. Although many find her work cold and unemotional, most agree that it's provocative -- especially her deconstructions of classical texts. But, this time, her idiosyncrasies had the opening night audience laughing at Phèdre. Instead of a woman frenzied by her forbidden attraction to her handsome stepson, Phèdre (Jenny Bacon) becomes a barking, petulant shrew in this production. The unblemished Hippolytus (James Elly) is reduced to vapidity, as are most secondary characters, by Akalaitis's editing of Racine's already pithy text; the production runs only 80 minutes. This may be the director's intent, but it certainly is not what Racine or translator Paul Schmidt intended.

This Phèdre is replete with Akalaitis's signature devices -- among them her enigmatic attachment to fluorescent strip lights as part of the scenic design, a mix of modern and classical costume elements, and interruptions of the dialogue with ritual movements. (For example, actors will stop what they're saying to wave their arms back and forth three times on either side of their heads.) Also, Phèdre and Theseus lapse into the original French at what seem to be arbitrarily selected moments. Chiefly, these devices distance the audience, reminding us that we are viewing an artificial presentation in a prepared space. The ritual movements, akin to those in Japanese theater, may be meant to emphasize and underscore peak emotions; instead, they undercut them by interrupting the physical and vocal climaxes of highly emotional moments.

But the emotional moment is precisely what gives Phèdre its power. Racine's work is about passion, not intelligence. It's about lust, guilt, jealousy, and innocence destroyed in a thoughtless flash. With its lean construction and direct, vigorous language, Phèdre highlights ungovernable emotions through revelation, accusation, despair, rage, and the anguish of regret. If only Akalaitis had trusted the text more and left Racine to his own literary devices! A London production three years ago, with Diana Rigg as Phèdre and Toby Stephens as Hippolytus, convincingly proved that a straightforward, classical interpretation of the work plays like gangbusters.

The fault in the staging at the Court Theatre lies not in the execution of scenic, lighting, costume, or sound designs, nor in the work of the accomplished actors. The fault is conceptual. By implication, deconstruction works only if it's preceded by construction, and that principle applies to an audience as well as to a director. Familiar classics -- say, Hamlet or Tartuffe or The Cherry Orchard -- may be suitable for radical reinterpretation, for audiences know the originals sufficiently well to understand the deconstructions. But Phèdre is a largely unfamiliar classic, and Court Theatre audiences are coming away from this production without a clue as to the authentic beauty, power, and intent of the work. What a shame, and what a missed opportunity!

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