Whatever drives Isabelle Huppert to portray women disposed to dire humiliation might be known by her and perhaps her psychotherapist (if she has one), but there are times when the many of us who admire her for her immense talent have to wonder whether it's necessary for us to continue witnessing her very public compulsion.
I sat in total wonderment in my Brooklyn Academy of Music seat (at the Harvey) throughout her latest in-person foray into intense degradation. It carries on through the three-hour-plus Krzysztof Warlikowski-directed Phaedra(s), while Huppert portrays, as the title indicates, various Phaedra figures. They're accumulated "after" Sarah Kane (her play Phaedra's Love), Wajdi Mouawad and J. M. Coetzee. The Coetzee contribution is taken from Louise Costello, his 2003 novel. And the sources drawn on are, of course, the Phaedras imagined by, to name a few, Euripides, Seneca and Racine.
As the hours ticked away on designer Malgorzata Szczesniak's large white box--into which a smaller but still large second box sometimes edges in and out--I watched Huppert grapple inconclusively with cuckolded husband Theseus and lust after not one of Theseus's sons but two Hippolytes (Gael Kamilindi, Andrzej Chyra). She fellates one and stabs the other to death in skewed post-coital passion. She commits suicide by hanging from a faucet and prepares to commit suicide a second time by using her hosiery as a noose attached to a shower head.
I won't say that Huppert--wearing wigs and various sexy outfits Szczesniak provided (great shoes and big-rimmed sunglasses, too)--exposes herself to utter shame in every conceivable way. But as these Phaedras, she's certainly given over to sufficient disgraces to suit Huppert's role-selecting yet again. (In a few weeks she shows up at this year's New York Film Festival in Paul Verhoeven's Elle, where, as a Parisienne called Michele, she's raped but in this outing is empowered to seek revenge.)
Repeatedly as Phaedra(s) unfolds, we spectators watch her scrub her crotch to out, out the damned bloody spot that collected on her chemise after one unfortunate incident. We see her crawl around the stage over and again. She endures physical and metal assaults with blank-eyed stoicism and throws herself at the two Hippolytes, with only Hippolyte 1 gladly agreeing to intercourse. The other, Hippolyte 2, is a young man who goes along with a sexual encounter because he's bored--and bored for an awfully long while. It would seem that this stretch is Warlikowski's take on Racine's Phaedra, but don't hold me to it.
With earlier sections labeled "Beauté," "Cruauté," "Innocence," "Realité" and maybe a few more projected titles I may have missed, the Phaedra(s) creators are obviously out to make a trenchant statement, or statements. about women. They want to demonstrate how women handle love and desire and the compromised position in which they must operate in a man's world.
More than that, they're implying by a title in the plural that Phaedra stands in some way for Everywoman. In a lengthy late segment, Huppert arrives as Louise Costello. She's interviewed before an audience (the Harvey audience, as it happens). In a dark suit with hair-pulled back and chatty as all-get-out, she goes on about Eros and Psyche, about awkward love-making between the gods and mortals (Leda being penetrated by a swan, for instance) and about desire. She yammers to the point where anyone listening could begin to see the similarity between Phaedra and Blanche DuBois--yup, they're sisters under the skin. Whether women (or men, for that matter) buy the suggestion that women are always hapless victims is something else entirely.
Phaedra(s) doesn't begin with the first of Huppert's Phaedras but with two alternate Phaedras. Norah Krief keens an Arabic lament into a mic, as Grégoire Léauté attacks a guitar. Rosalba Torres Guerrero, a dark, statuesque beauty on shiny platforms and sporting little else, dances. They're both on hand to set the mood for Every-Phaedra's inner torment. In the second act, Guerrero has an extended solo during which, to drive home her unflagging anguish, she rotates her head ever faster until it looks as if it's going to spin off and crash against a wall. Someone (Warlikowski?) has to regard this seemingly endless turn as meaningful.
There's much more that can be said about Phaedra(s), such as extended descriptions of the several scenes in which the Greek myth is mooted in one way or another. Mention should probably be made of Hippolyte's sibling, Strophe (Agata Buzek), who runs up against her own Phaedra-like devastations. But why, if sitting impatiently through the production is ultimately unedifying, burden others with anything more about the action?
A question does come to mind about an enterprise that has evidently made top European grades and, for one stop, has played Paris's venerated Odéon-Theatre de l'Europe. It may not be a new question, but nevertheless: Does Phaedra(s)--which possibly many others rate a bold, an unflinching look at women's ageless and unchanging plight--suggest that there is a sizable difference between and among cultural mindsets? Just asking, not insisting. Is it possible that one country's salve is another country's stewed prunes?
Incidentally, when the Racine(?) take on Phaedra is unfolding, Warlikowski has positioned an upstage flat-screen television. On it plays the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Get it?: Janet Leigh not as Marion but as yet another Phaedra. The classic excerpt runs six or seven times over. Can anyone be blamed for watching it rather than what's occurring between the tedious Phaedra and Hippolyte?