New Phèdre Is Astonishingly Nuts and Nuttily Astonishing

I must tell you at the outset that the Wooster Group’s experimental version of Racine’s Phèdre –retitled To You, the Birdie! –is an astonishing invention and completely, utterly nuts. If it weren’t so nuts, it wouldn’t be so astonishing. (And vice versa, I guess). Either way, there’s much here that’s new and exciting–not least the supreme central performance of Kate Valk’s ruined, disintegrating Phèdre, which comes about as close to theatrical greatness as it can get without Ms. Valk toppling over the edge into insanity.

On the more eccentric side of things, there’s Phèdre’s troublesome bowel movements, but I’ll leave that until the moment seems right. For now, it’s the badminton that will surely intrigue everyone. There’s a first for everything, and I can solemnly say this is the first time I’ve ever seen badminton played in Phèdre .

I haven’t seen it played in any other theater piece, either. I’ve seen tennis onstage (“Anyone for tennis?”), as well as basketball, cricket, bowling, a bit of baseball, soccer and, of course, fencing (cf Hamlet ). Never badminton. Apparently Elizabeth LeCompte, the renowned director of the Phèdre adaptation, had an epiphany, she says, “a vision of birds flying around.” Which led to the badminton metaphor. “To you, the birdie,” is the literal translation of the French A vous, volant , or “Your serve.”

Perhaps the shuttlecock–light, airborne and feathery–is a useful metaphor for something … but Phèdre ? Racine’s classic tragedy of uncontrollable incest and sin doesn’t strike me as airborne. It’s as hellishly earthbound as worms. Still, the sight of Hippolytos playing a vigorous game of badminton against the more consistent Theramenes is a sight for delighted eyes.

The dedicated troupe has actually been trained in the speedy, lightning rigors of the game by the former national champion of China, Mr. Chi-Bing Wu, who’s listed in the program. The cast therefore plays the game well, and in character. Venus, played by Suzzy Roche and Fiona Leaning, is the sternly neutral referee, the fateful final judge calling out a mechanical “Fault!” Or, “The decision cannot be appealed.” Hippolytos (Ari Fliakos), stepson to Phèdre, beloved object of her illicit desire, is a temperamental competitor and loser; Theramenes (Scott Shepherd), solid friend, solid player; Oenone (Oscar winner Francis McDormand, a surprise newcomer to the troupe), Iago-like servant to Phèdre: anonymous, unflashy style, dogged. Ruined, pampered Phèdre, on the other hand, shaky as a junkie, can hardly hit the shuttlecock.

Ms. LeCompte, who’s also the Wooster Group’s artistic director (and the partner of founding member Willem Dafoe), usually begins each project with the set in mind rather than the script. But the Phèdre project, she explained to New York magazine, “started from a very aural place.” She sounds like an ear specialist. There’s more language this time than usual. The production is based on the spare, undecorative Racine adaptation of the late Paul Schmidt, and the sound itself–three sound crews are credited–is in the troupe’s signature style of dissociated, amplified voices, cool unactorish neutrality, laughable splat -like cartoon exclamation points of childish, slapstick delight.

The mobile modernist set itself is within the house style, too. The sliding plexiglass screens, monitors and video cameras build the landscape of an apparently spontaneous, carefully ordered, beautiful mess of technology. Certain performers sit watchfully on the edges of the action like techno-Kabuki actors. Beware all house styles, though. They can be too imposed–creating automatic, familiar surfaces.

There’s a riveting use of video, however, in which bodies are divided between screen image and reality. The jerky screen images are deliberately out of sync with reality, like a looped art installation of dislocated legs, a courtly shoe, or a worried Hippolytos scratching his bare balls reflexively under his toga.

Willem Dafoe in the smallish role of Theseus–the king who killed the Minotaur and married philandering Phèdre–astonished me. Physically, he isn’t a particularly big man, yet he manages to convey an ancient warrior who’s the mythic size of a giant. Mr. Dafoe is a seriously funny man. He lumbers and creaks onstage as if wearing an invisible suit of armor. When he walks, the earth shakes. “Look at me!” goes the habitual cry of his battle-scarred Theseus, adopting the narcissistic pose of a Greek sculpture. “Look at me!”

Morphing vainly into Olympian statuary is an amusing feature of the production, like mundane humanity flexing minuscule muscles before a gilt mirror. But that “Look at me!” is a mixed blessing. It’s fun, of course, and the tone of the Wooster Group has always been playfully good-natured. But Phèdre is ill-natured, or a mole of nature at the rotten center, and Theseus is a tragic hero who destroys himself. Then again, scheming Oenone drowns herself here in a toilet bowl–a difficult, if deserved, fate, but lacking poetic grandeur. A broken badminton racket must suffice to symbolize the death of Hippolytos–a diminished death and paltry image to capture the drowning of innocence, when mythically the horses of Hippolytos’ chariot were frightened by a sea monster and the chariot was dashed to pieces along the shore at Troezen.

Ms. Valk’s great Phèdre has her comic ironies, to be sure. “New clothes always make me feel good, but this isn’t working …. ” announces the tortured Queen, who’s a depressed fashion freak. The distracted way she picks the feathers off a shuttlecock–”He loves me, he loves me not”–had us all laughing. But Ms. Valk’s memorable performance transcends the easy knockabout comedy. She’s a unique actress–among the very finest we have. Yet I’ve seen her perform only with the Wooster Group (of which she’s a founding member and its leading light). If she acts outside the group, it must be very rare. If she gives interviews, it must be rarer still. Who is she? We know nothing about her life, and it couldn’t be better! This exceptional, beautiful woman remains an utter mystery, a gift, whose Phèdre touches genius.

The last version I saw was Diana Rigg’s. She made incest seem refined. Ms. Valk is night and day–pathetic like a wind-up doll, unhinged, a Phèdre swamped in her own shame. Hers is a near-mimed portrait of escalating, primal hysteria. But the sensational point–both farcical and tragic–is that nothing works for this ruined woman, including her bowels.

That’s some risible concept, I know. A tortured Phèdre plopped on a porto-potty wheelchair as attentive courtiers give her an enema won’t be everyone’s idea of Racine’s classical heroine. But what of that? Bowel movements are universal, I believe. And wasn’t constipated Luther the founder of Protestantism? No, Ms. Valk’s brilliant achievement is to go far beyond what could have been an avant-garde joke into a stunning portrait of horrible, crappy decay and waste–foulness. She makes her Phèdre, choking on sin, human.

If you can, you should see To You, the Birdie ! It’s playing at the new St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.