Having previously created noteworthy spectacle out of such obtuse works as Eugene O’Neill’s “The Hairy Ape” and Gertrude Stein’s “Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights,” the cutting-edge, New York-based Wooster Group turns the tragedy of love-maddened Queen Phaedre (Kate Valk) into a demented badminton tournament, highlighted by one of the more impressive sound designs to be heard on any local stage. Helmer Elizabeth LeCompte’s spectacular visual and aural production overlay overwhelms the throughline of scripter Paul Schmidt’s sparse text (translated from Racine). But it does manage to convey the inner turmoil of a helpless soul whose unrelenting lust for stepson Hippolytos (Ari Fiakos) wreaks havoc on everyone about her, including husband Theseus (Willem Dafoe).
Dominating the proceedings is Jim Findley’s pseudo badminton court, augmented by an array of video monitors, aluminum tracks, sliding plexiglas panels and hidden cameras. LeCompte succeeds in establishing the recurring shuttlecock slapping as a metaphor for the aimlessness of Theseus’ court, amplified in importance by the high-decibel sounds of a four-member crew (Geoff Abbas, John Collins, Jim Dawson, Iver Findley). But the trappings of the production outdo the plot, which often gets submerged by the surrounding glitz.
That said, the show is certainly fun to watch. The ritualistic rules of the game, dogmatically enforced by the video monitored presence of Venus/Referee (Fiona Leaning), constantly intrude on the royal machinations of Phaedre, who is so helpless she needs constant assistance in relieving herself. Though she is consumed by her passion for idealistic Hippolytus, she must still rely on her nurse Oenone (Sheena See) to put her desires into action. The combined efforts of the two only hasten the inevitable tragedy that decimates the court.
The production is dominated by Wooster Group founding members Valk and Dafoe. Though most of her dialogue is actually voiced by Theromenes (Scott Shephard), Valk exudes an all-consuming neediness that actually sucks the life out of ever-serving Oenone, effectively played by See. Dafoe is a force of sinewy energy as the much-put-upon ruler who constantly arches himself into ego-inflating poses that are grotesque re-creations of Greek god statuary.
Fliakos’ Hippolytos is also prone to striking Olympiad poses as if to convince himself that he deserves to be in and on the same court as his father. There is a striking moment near play’s end when plot and production conceit unite as Hippolytos stands meekly impotent as a raging Theseus banishes his son by bombarding the lad with an onslaught of unreturned shuttlecocks.
In the midst of all the impressive sound and fury, the most intriguing aspect of the production is the performance of Shepherd, who usually sits offstage voicing much of the dialogue, not only of Valk but Dafoe as well. As he segues fluidly from understated deadpan to unrequited rage, Shepherd’s voicings are plot’s much needed lifeline, conveying the shifting logic, emotions and agendas of these hapless, self-serving royal folk.