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`Phaedra' seems lost in translation

How do you say tragedy in French? The absence of the original's rhyming verses isn't improved by overwrought acting.

September 22, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

Performing Jean Racine's "Phaedra" in English is like trying to make champagne in New Jersey. It's not a matter of Gallic snobbery. The conditions are all wrong.

The play poses formidable translation challenges. The formal elegance of Racine's rhymed verse is more than decoration; it's a worldview. Phaedra is a character who's torn between her passion for her stepson Hippolytus and her proud nobility. The conflict unfolds in the tragedy's verbal patterns. Our heroine suffers under a constraint that's as much syllabic as societal.

For the production at A Noise Within, director Sabin Epstein employs Richard Wilbur's version, which is widely considered the most playable, even if its couplets sometimes have a Dr. Seuss ring to them. Such is the fate of the Anglicized work.

Less easily excused are the actors' divergent relationships to the language. Jenna Cole plays Phaedra with an overwrought emotionalism, illustrating her text with the groaning agony of a Method actor tapping into a recent personal loss. Looking like he stumbled in from a Sunset Strip rock club, J Todd Adams' Hippolytus strives for a contemporary immediacy that seems, well, a touch out of place given the ridiculous sword he's holding.

June Claman's frail Oenone, the nurse who disastrously persuades Phaedra to give in to her desires, adopts a neutrality that allows others to easily bully her onstage. And what can one say about the high artificiality of Mark Bramhall's Theseus, Phaedra's ever-roving husband and Hippolytus' dad, except that it might be more suitable for a toothpaste ad in baroque France, if such a thing can be imagined.

As Aricia, the young woman who inspires Hippolytus to reconsider his vow of chastity, Dorothea Harahan turns in the most credible performance. It's not so much what she does as what she doesn't do. She trusts the words to reveal her character rather than imposing one herself.

No one in the non-Francophone world ever seems to get these neoclassical tragedies right. British director Declan Donnellan once pulled off a first-rate production of Pierre Corneille's "Le Cid," but then he had the benefit of working with French actors -- in their native tongue.

Still, Epstein could have attempted a more uniform style. What, for instance, was the thinking behind the crazy mix of historical and modern-day costumes? The resulting jumble succeeds only in dressing a French masterpiece in ill-fitting American clothes.



Where: A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale

When: Check for details

Ends: Nov. 19

Price: $34 to $38

Contact: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Running time: (818) 240-0910, Ext. 1

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