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'PHEDRE' Crosses the Pond...And a Few Great Lakes In Between

There was a sense of communal excitement at Steppenwolf's Downstairs space on its usually dark Monday evening.  Up's set (currently tight-rope-walking through August 23) rested peacefully and motionless in the wings while a sleekly adorned wide white projection screen took center stage.  Steppenwolf Theatre Company was lucky enough to air the recent simulcast of National Theatre's production of Jean Racine's Phedre to a sold-out crowd of Greek tragedy (and British theatre) enthusiasts.
The evening -or event, rather- had a special one-off feeling to it: audience members appeared dressier and than usual, likening back to the days of Sunday matinees at, say, the Pickwick or Biograph Theaters.  The lobby was abuzz with chatter of recent trips to London's West End, Steppenwolf's upcoming season, and "What's your favorite Helen Mirren movie role?  Mine's -- insert any given British monarch she has portrayed"  True, not one performer in Nicholas Hytner's epic production was present at the screening (nor was any performer a Steppenwolf Ensemble Member), but the atmosphere was electric with anticipatory wonder.  Would NT Live (the National's new endeavor to simulcast live performances to satellite cinemas all over the globe) be able to successfully capture a live stage play without becoming an over-cinematic burden?  The answer, thanks to five swiftly shifting in-house cameras and the keen eye NT Live director Robin Lough, was a resounding "yes!"
From the moment the curtain lifts, the audience is engulfed equally by Hippolytus' commanding exposition (the fiercely stern and dominantly complex Dominic Cooper) and designer Bob Crowley's grandiose limestone Mediterranean palace.  Vast in scale, the open seaside castle allowed Ted Hughes' fluid translation, rich in lyrical prose and drenched in melodic poetry, to fill the vacant playing field.  Yet, the draw of Hytner's production, which skillfully focuses on the forcefully direct relationships within the script's mostly two-person scenes, is the title role played by the luminous Dame Helen Mirren.  Whether plotting deadly deeds with her nurse, Oenone (the seasonally weathered Margaret Tyzack) or pouring her heart out to Hippolytus, Mirren exudes a complex performance wrapped in explosive guilt & nuanced pain.  Ruth Negga's Aricia also shines as the radiant young third piece of Phedre's love triangle.
Many kudos goes to Steppenwolf for their first NT Live broadcast.  Continuing on with the National's remaining season (All's Well That Ends Well, Mark Ravenhill's Nation, and Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art) would prove an exciting addion to Chicago's dark Mondays.  Maybe an actual live broadcast will visit Steppenwolf soon, giving audiences an extra boost of "this is happening right now"...only 3,963 mile away.

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From This Author William Panek