Phèdre by Jean Racine, translated by Ted Hughes, directed by Daniel Brooks, with Nancy Palk, Diego Matamoros, Jonathan Watton, Yanna McIntosh, Tanya Jacobs, Kate Hennig, William Webster and Patricia Fagan. Presented by Soulpepper at the du Maurier Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Runs in rep to August 16. $28-$46, stu $25. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
Soulpepper's production of phèdre is taken from Brit Ted Hughes 's translation of Jean Racine 's 17th-century take on Euripides ' Greek tragedy Hippolytus . This unusual pedigree makes it a fascinating but difficult play to produce. The wrong tone and the work - which chronicles Phèdre's ( Nancy Palk ) lust for her stepson Hippolytus ( Jonathan Watton ) while her husband Theseus ( Diego Matamoros ) is away - can suddenly swerve into camp.
But Daniel Brooks and an ace design team unveil a dreamlike production that respects the work's inevitable tragic trajectory while introducing us to one of the most fascinating female characters in Western literature.
Look how subtly the themes of imprisonment and escape are integrated into the design, from Dany Lyne 's chairs with high backs that resemble ladders, to Richard Feren 's hypnotic soundscape, one moment sounding like the half-heard background music of a dream, the next evoking the sheer unnerving terror of Zeus's judgment.
Against this chilly backdrop, Palk plays the writhing and self-flagellating queen with intelligence and passion. She makes each scene slightly different, twists the desperation deeper and is most moving when she sees, horrified, what she's become.
There's also fine work in Matamoros's grizzled king, Tanja Jacobs and Kate Hennig as two very different confidantes, Yanna McIntosh as Hippolytus's love object and William Webster in a strikingly detailed monologue recounting who died and how.
The only weak link is Watton's bland Hippolytus, though there are no indications in his underwritten role or his costume that he's anything special.