New York

Wooster Group

St Ann’s Warehouse

With the ferocity of kung fu fighters, Theramenes (Scott Shepherd) and Hippolytus (Ari Fliakos) faced off from opposite ends of the low platform that was the stage of To You, The Birdie! (Phèdre), the Wooster Group’s brilliant adaptation of Racine’s seventeenth-century drama of obsessive infatuation, rewritten for the troupe by Paul Schmidt in 1993. But rather than throw kicks at each other’s heads, the men began to play: The shape of their athletic and elegant performance was determined by the powerful thrust it took for each to whip a “birdie” (as in badminton) at lightning speed through the air. Not just overhand swipes but high leaps, under-the-leg shots, and expert spins and dives sprang from this unexpected choreographic source. In fact, it was the physicality of this pair of energetic actors that injected the work with its raunchy and surprisingly emotional drive.

Not that the language wasn’t as smooth as a martini with a lemon twist—and as rhythmic as the liquid dripping through the catheters that littered the set (along with walkers, wheelchairs, and mobile toilets that trail equipment for all-out enemas). “I had Venus like a virus in my blood,” swoons Phèdre (Kate Valk), in love with her stepson, Hippolytus. In this world every transgression—from bestiality (Phèdre’s mother, Pasiphaë, gave birth to the Minotaur after her affair with a bull) to bad taste (Theseus was first married to his wife’s sister, Ariadne)—is punished not only with instruments of displeasure but also with the shudder of baleful sound effects: cars crashing, walls of glass shattering, masonry crumbling and falling. “Emotional weakness is presented as moral weakness,” wrote Racine of his play. “Human passion is presented only to show the disasters it is capable of causing.”

Who would have thought that such despair and Racine’s determination to face it (“I have never written a play where virtue triumphs so completely”) could be expressed so profoundly and with such grace by miked female leads shuffling across the stage with the staccato movement of automatons, rarely speaking their own lines, relying instead on a mind reader/badminton judge sitting upstage and whispering their soliloquies to a microphone? Bound in ribbed corsetlike costumes that pressed their breasts skyward, Phèdre and Oeonone (Frances McDormand, in her Wooster Group debut) paced back and forth, passing before and behind a plasma screen at the front of the stage as though moving in and out of Alice’s looking glass. Sometimes the prerecorded digital video on the screen showed the stuff of ordinary life: As Phèdre stood behind it, we saw her lower half onscreen in stop-action animation, trying on her favorite sandals. At other times the video was the telltale indicator of the subconscious: While the men sat on a bench behind it, the screen showed them restlessly fondling their balls (they were naked under their kiltlike skirts).

The advanced technology in this production was so integrated into the meaning of the words it accompanied that it was easy to forget we were being manipulated by controllers at the board. The recorded sound of softly lapping water irresistibly soothed us as we watched the sad story unfold. When Theseus (Willem Dafoe) beat his sinewy chest and thundered at his son “Look at me!” it was down a swimming-pool ladder at the edge of the stage that humiliated Hippolytus slunk in pain. When Theseus tried, too late, to stop Poseidon from following his orders to kill Hippolytus, the sound of the crashing waves that took the boy away echoed Theseus’s grief. Such unexpected tenderness in a work of high technology by a company that for almost three decades has, at times pedantically, deconstructed theater’s language and imagery with the tools of live and recorded video reflects sophistication born of years of experimentation. To You, The Birdie! should be a model for new-media theater for years to come. It is a winner because it sets a humanist agenda inside the machines that make us tick.

RoseLee Goldberg