Small Shows, Big Results 

Lionheart and Phaedra recast old stories to dazzling effect.

There can be virtue in being small, flexible, and creative with resources. Working with minimal sets, even more minimal props, and only four characters and actors each, Central Works and Sub Shakes have created limber new productions that are elegantly simple. Both feature kings laid low and surprising women; both draw from history and myth; both are new takes on old stories.

Central Works' Lionheart: The Last Great Crusade suggests a surprising answer to one of the mysteries of the medieval world -- why did Richard I (Lionheart to Robin Hood fans) fail to achieve his goal of taking Jerusalem from the sultan Saladin in the Third Crusade? Intrigue, romance, self-hatred, and vengeance swirl together in a white-hot crucible. The company takes one of history's great soap operas (just watch Richard trying to decide to whom he should marry off his sister Joanna) and makes it as intelligent and accessible as any of their other dramas -- and even more intense.

Lionheart's story is particularly relevant today. As James Reston Jr. noted in Warriors of God (from which Central Works drew some of its scholarship and dialogue), Islam is still waiting for a new Saladin to step forth and cast out the modern-day Crusaders from the Middle East. With the current tangle of Israeli gunships and Hamas suicide bombers, it's easy to forget that the Fertile Crescent has been hotly contested for thousands of years by a wider host of players than just Arabs and Jews. Lionheart opens up the story of one English king's role in the mess, as well as those of the French and English Crusaders traveling with him -- not all of whom marched on Jerusalem for the holiest of reasons.

Robert Weinapple's Richard is an angry yet seductive drunkard, sparring with his equally hotheaded sister Joanna, and Saladin's brother Kalil, who has been sent as an emissary. But he also has plenty of surprises up the sleeve of his opulent robe, especially his plan to take Jerusalem without bloodshed, which will put Joanna and Kalil in uncomfortably close contact. All four actors here are excellent in their roles, but Weinapple is remarkable for his precision; his rages, schemes, and tears are all equally believable. The language of this play runs the gamut from the poetic (Kalil's letter to Joanna) to the coarse ("Shut your filthy gob, you slaggy whore" being used to great effect); and overall the play moves more swiftly and dramatically than last season's more cerebral Mata Hari. Once again, Rica Anderson shows her gift for accent and a truly queenly grace, while Central Works newcomers Armen DiLanchian and Jodi Feder play Kalil and Rachel as both witnesses to the rage within the English royal family and agents of their own plots. It's almost hard to believe this play is a totally new work, so assured is it; bolstered by subtle lighting and Gregory Scharpen's score (which includes music the real Richard wrote), Lionheart is a powerful and gripping experience.

Meanwhile Phaedra, playing in the gallery at the Berkeley Art Center, is a welcome change from the usual frenetic Sub Shakes modus; the actors are few and play one role each; the stage movement is measured; and emotions are given time to develop. Although the actors' experience levels vary, they are well-matched, and the acting is generally solid, aside from some questionable pantomime in the second act. The story they've come to tell is older than even the Crusades, yet it is given modern dress and sensibility such that its original authors might not recognize it.

Phaedra is a princess of Crete, taken to wife by the war-loving King Theseus. In the original myth, they have children together, so Theseus has sent Hippolytus, his bastard son by another woman, to be raised in another city, eventually to be king there. But Hippolytus -- who makes a great show of his chastity -- returns to Troezen, where his lonely stepmother promptly falls madly in love with him. And it is a madness of the blood; depending on which version you read, she either declares her love to Hippolytus herself, or her nurse does it. In every case, Phaedra decides that she must die, and more or less promptly does so. Hippolytus is blamed, and eventually dies as well. Theseus is overcome with remorse, and Aphrodite (who was wronged by either Hippolytus or Theseus) is well-satisfied with her work.

The question of Phaedra's agency has beguiled everyone who has told her story. According to Euripides, she was a pawn in Aphrodite's game, a manifestation of untrammeled passion; she dies early in his telling of the myth, swiftly and at her own hand. The Roman statesman and playwright Seneca puts Phaedra's suffering more squarely on human shoulders, highlighting her abduction by Theseus and giving the wretched queen a slow death so she has longer to repent her own crimes against both Hippolytus and the gods. Racine gave Phaedra five acts and made her less obedient. And a modern novel by June Rachuy Brindel takes a decidedly pro-Goddess slant, positing her as the protector of the old earth-based religions and Theseus their cold-hearted destroyer. Each interpretation asks, how responsible are the gods for the plight of humans, and how responsible are the humans themselves? How far away from our true selves will we stray, once grasped by passion of one sort or another?

The version Sub Shakes chose to tell is Deborah Rogin's, she of Woman Warrior fame. Rogin's take references the gods, but only glancingly. In addition to being a smaller, more personal version, this Phaedra is very different in several key aspects, not the least of which is that the order and quantity of violent deaths strays far afield of the classics.

So far afield, indeed, that it starts to stumble in the second act, and appears as if Rogin isn't sure where to go next. She has killed someone off and suggested that her ending may be less distressing than those of her predecessors; she also takes the opportunity to come out strongly in support of the right of women to determine their own fate. But Rogin overstates her case when she changes the story as thoroughly as she does. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Nurse's soliloquy late in the second act. Rogin has her ramble on about the old days, her old loves, and why things were better when women ran things. It's a disjointed presentation and drains much of the power of the shocking death that marks the play's climax, giving the impression that Phaedra's loyal retainer is stalling for time.

Mae Ziglin Meidav scowls and seethes as said retainer, a woman waiting for an opportunity to set right her lady's unwilling marriage to Theseus. In many versions of Phaedra's story, the nurse plays an important role, but none so dramatic as the one she has here. Meidav is a big, powerful presence to counterbalance David Klausner's Theseus, whose change of heart about the necessity of war has come too late. Some of the most strongly drawn interactions occur between these two actors, notably when he hisses quietly at her in her lady's bedchamber. The two younger characters start out a little monotonous, both as written and as performed, but the actors -- Miranda Calderon and David Stein -- are convincing in their respective plights, and grow more interesting in the second act when they get to interact with someone besides themselves and one another.

Rogin's Phaedra is an audacious experiment, and while it drags in places, this production makes the most of Phaedra's story, while marking a greater depth for Sub Shakes as a company and Stan Spenger as a director. If you hated the way Euripides and Seneca ended it, this feminist Phaedra is worth checking out.

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