Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The Shotgun Players—never ones to fear neither pushing the envelope nor foraying outside the creative box—are currently presenting Adam Bock’s PHAEDRA, an adaptation of Euripides’ HIPPOLYTUS.
When a projectile of Eros goes astray, the damage can be equally devastating in urban America as it was in ancient Athens: people get their feelings hurt, people die, people snuff themselves, the apple cart gets capsized and often times divorce lawyers make mega-bucks from the ensuing fray.
A prominent judge, Antonio Mason, with foreboding trepidation, welcomes his prodigal son, Paulie back into the bosom of his suburb home.
While there is no ring and no fatted calf on the bar-bee, there is a covertly slavering step mother.
While Dad and Step Mom work, Paulie (optimally played by Patrick Alparone) is enjoying life outside the slammers and juvenile halls.
Still on probation, Paulie spends halcyon days working on his Grandfather’s Mustang—prepping it for the grand probation breaking getaway to Colorado—and undergoing substance abuse therapy.
Mason’s wife Catherine—a.k.a. Paulie’s stepmother—is not eager to have Paulie back home and, although the audience is unaware, her unwelcoming stance is not as objectively based as it appears to be.
Catherine, although middle aged, her blood has yet to cool; she has a supercharged endocrine system that is still occupying the driver’s seat and calling the shots like Fast Eddy in the HUSTLER: her hippocanthus is so awash in estrogen she can barely stand up straight; if estrus were a trailer, she would have a double wide.
Catherine Castellanos plays Catherine with a cool inner sizzle reminiscent of Anne Bancroft’s MRS Robinson.
Paulie, like any suburban boy raised in a blissful broth of denial and dysfunctionality lubricated with money, is hostile, self-absorbed and self-indulgent: he is that little terrier that has grabbed hold of Daddy’s gabardine pant leg and won’t let go: knowing that tears in the fabric and social embarrassment are his only tools for vengeance.
For Paulie, independence only extents as far as attitude, disrespect, self-destructiveness, smoking cigarettes and not making your bed: the rebellion was never intended to extend clear into the realm of financial emancipation.
After Paulie settles in, his step mother makes her hormonally charged move.
Prodded by misdirected lust and buoyed by Dutch Courage in the form of Chardonnay—possibly a Pinot Grigio—consumed at three in the morning, she ambushes Paulie: professing her errant erotic love and offering herself as carnal booty for Paulie having successfully laid siege to Antonio’s castle.
The story seems to parallel the biblical story of Joseph wherein Joseph is sexually harassed by Potiphar’s wife; since no description of Potiphar’s wife is ever given, we don’t know whether to give Joseph kudos for good moral principles or good taste.
As in the MRS Potiphar caper, Paulie’s step-mother tries to reverse the tables: she tells Mason that Paulie performed a bodice ripper on her; Mason takes the bait, betraying his son one final time.
Stage stalwart Keith Burkland as Mason is over-the-top; he gives us an unsympathetic Mason we can both loath and despise with a clean conscience.
Rarely does real life give us such a rich opportunity for a sense of moral high ground and ethical superiority.
Burkland’s Mason gives us hope, a reason to go on living knowing that the people who live in those mega-homes, behind wrought iron gates and manicured lawns, have lives that are even more wretched than our own.
Burkland’s Mason gives us a sense of complacency and makes us comfortable with mediocrity for only the price of a theatre ticket.
Burkland’s Mason is Richard Cory, the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Willy Loman and the cuckolded MR Robinson all in one package.
To stage this dissection of the America Dream, Award winning set-designer Nina Ball has created a masterpiece.
Her set reminds us that PHAEDRA is after all Greek; MS Ball has introduced nuances and elements of Minoan, Mycenaean and Athenian architecture and styling without dragging down the value of the Euro.
Following what can only be a highly praised and successful run of PHAEDRA, the set should be auctioned off—I want it to gussy up my trailer in Manteca—it really is beautiful.
For tickets call the box office at 510-841-6500 or surf over to www.shotgunplayers.org.