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BWW Reviews: Chilling Set in Actors Shakespeare Project's PHEDRE

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Recently, I've been talking a lot about using non-traditional space for theatre. I've found there to be a fine line between utilizing an unconventional venue and taking advantage of a creative space that actually benefits and works hand in hand with the production. Last night, I attended Actors Shakespeare Project's production of Phedre, which took place at the First Church of Boston. Not only is the church not a traditional theatre space, but it managed to take on this project in a way I'd rarely experienced prior. The oddly appropriate atmosphere, with its cavernous and looming ceilings, its stony walls, and its grandiose and overpowering nature set the scene, far beyond what ASP brought in themselves. This was a very clear example of finding a setting that is perfectly appropriate for the production at hand.

Phedre, the Greek tragedy by Jean Racine (this version translated by Ted Hughes), is a highly descriptive and heightened diatribe of a play, with epic language and more description than action. The story is the focus and this production ran with that, providing a simple, understated, and highly symbolic playground on which the tale could play out. Scenically, the only addition to the high, stone walls and giant silver organ already in place was a sprawling mound of interwoven chains (designed by Christina Todesco), which branched out throughout the entire space. Used sporadically throughout the show, the chains both reached past the world of the play and confined the action to it, beautifully representing the trapping of the characters and the stretching and yearning towards a different life.

The other design elements of the production were similarly symbolic. The lighting design, by Annie Wiegand, was brightly colored and varied, adding texture and, at times, warmth to the otherwise chilly atmosphere of the room. Costumes, by Mary Lauve, were suggestive of a Grecian influence, but entirely modern, which successfully tied the piece to its roots. And the soundscape, designed and composed by Arshan Gailus, was subtle and ominous, setting the mood in a powerful and subdued way. The designers seemed to have a cohesive vision, using their designs to emphasize and focus more primarily on the language.

Director M. Bevin O'Gara clearly knew that the power was in the text and used that decision to shape the piece. She did not attempt to dilute the story with excess blocking or unnecessary examples of action; instead, she let the actors hold their ground, letting their own storytelling come alive through speech. A few of the actors were less specific in this, with awkward pacing or less focused intentions, but for the most part, the stagnant stage picture allowed for a natural and comfortable deliverance of the language. The focus was automatically on the beauty of the spoken word and the emotions of the characters, rather than on pointless action.

Paula Plum led the cast in the title role and was as effortless as ever. She exuded a genuine youthfulness to her, which not only explained her frenzy, but worked with her intelligence and class to make for a fully rounded protagonist. She walked the fine line between honestly tragic and overly dramatic, allowing the audience much needed moments of laughter. Plum was foiled by Jason Bowen as Hippolytus, a strong and deliberate actor who came alive in the scenes where he could demonstrate his naturally commanding and charming air. I found him to be particularly endearing in his scene with Aricia in the second act, one of the only truly hopeful moments in the show. Overall, this cast veered slightly older than is usually portrayed, but did so appropriately, and I felt that the maturity that came with these casting choices made for a stronger statement. While a younger cast can more easily be considered victims of "young, frivolous love", mature and confident actors read as more honestly drastic. The extremity spoke to their characters and the tragedy of circumstance, rather than something to be blamed on their age.

I don't usually seek out Grecian tragedies, but I was quite pleased to find myself in this audience. Albeit a tad long-winded, I thought this production gracefully handled this tragedy, presenting it with symbolism and respect for the language. And its brilliant use of space made it all the more chilling. I would certainly recommend it.

Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara; Translation by Ted Hughes; Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco; Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand; Costume Design by Mary Lauve; Sound Design and Compositions by Arshan Gailus; Vocal Coaching by Annie Thompson; Stage Management by Adele Nadine Traub; Production Management by Deb Sullivan.

Featuring Steven Barkhimer, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Jason Bowen, Paula Plum, Mara Sidmore, Bobbie Steinbach, and Robert Walsh.

Actors Shakespeare Project's production of Phedre runs through December 7th at the First Church in Boston. For more information, visit www.actorsshakespeareproject.org.

Photos by Stratton McCrady Photography.


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Alex Lonati holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Studies and Journalism from Emerson College, where she spent four years hosting Standing Room Only, the (read more...)