People are people, making the same mistakes and suffering the same misfortunes time and again. History is to be studied because it reminds us of where we’ve been as something that transcends an individual culture or society, and unites us as a race of humans. Paths we have chosen that led to doom before are likely to do so again. We study, and we (hopefully) learn from our mistakes. But no study of cultural history can prepare us for the perilous choices of the heart’s desire, which always aches for what it wants like a petulant infant, independent from the influences of our intellect or our common sense. Lookingglass’ Fedra explores this point as plainly as I have ever seen, with the added element (excuse?) that the deepest desires of our heart can be completely out of our control; sometimes it is the will of the gods that shreds our rational selves, so thoroughly bent and driven by the act of acquiring the object of our affection that we would betray any individual or moral code.
Set in a modern, alternate-reality Haiti, Fedra does well at acclimating the staging of the ancient Greek performances in which the story’s origin lie. The set is simple, with a bank of doors along the rear wall that make a fan of Greek theatre nod appreciatively at their presence. Set changes were done with such a seamless fluidity as to not be distracting; worth mentioning due to the contrast with other productions I’ve seen this month. Particularly impressive was the attention to detail of the pillars at the downstage corners, disappearing after a few feet only to be continued and completed twenty feet higher. I kept an eye to see which of the actors would flub by breaking the plane of what was supposed to be there, and was greatly satisfied when the only character to do so was Afrodite, providing a directorial nod of acknowledgement of the supernatural power of the gods that puts the “b” in “subtle”.
The performances, unfortunately, were largely adequate at best. Particularly distracting was Hippolytus’ wince at the mention of his lady-love, Aricia, looking so mechanical that I winced myself. Theseus, however, gave me chills at the cursing of his son. He gave a look of contempt so convincing it could only have been delivered by someone who’d spoken to my own father about my teenage years. Afrodite brought a power and commanding presence that could only belong to a being above and beyond regality, aided by the direction and the other performers’ synchronicity, most notably (and obviously) Fedra. No other performer left an impression worth remembering, for good or for ill.
Putting a god into a 21st century setting is easy for a person of my background and tastes, but I suspect the author had a somewhat lower expectation of the typical audience member’s ability to fit that round peg into the square hole through which they view the world. For example, if the play had been set in modern day America with the presidential family as the center of the story, there would certainly have been a disproportionate number of people who wouldn’t be able to see the forest of plot for the view of that particular tree. But the added element of setting the play in a 21st century Haiti that operates as the seat of world superpowerdom operates like a mnemonic plot device. Changing a single yet powerful element of the world view strains credulity, but changing two or more of these elements cements the viewpoint into a more easily digestible package, allowing the audience to focus instead on the overall story instead of breaking down its inconsistencies with the world in which they each grew up.
This has the further effect of providing the ability to slip truth into fiction. One cannot see this play without seeing the parallels of the African-American experience made manifest under the universal guise of an ancient storyline. If the play were simply to have been billed as “The African-American Phaedra”, it’s certainly conceivable that it would lose some appeal to a non-black audience regardless of the play’s content or execution.
Sometimes eloquent, sometimes brutal, yet always honest, Fedra delivers a kick to the human psyche that tells us where we’ve been is exactly where we’re going. The heart does as the heart does – or as the gods will – and our choices are limited purely to how we interpret and react to the accidents of our circumstances.