JULY 13, 1998: The first time Steven Porter was angered at the of work of ancient Greek playwright Euripides came as he watched a college production of Hippolytus.
"I thought to myself, '(Euripides) got it all wrong. People's emotions don't operate like that,'" said Porter, a New York-based playwright visiting Salt Lake City for the regional premiere of his Hippolytus. "After that performance, I set it in the back of my mind that one day I would write my own version of Hippolytus that was true to the way I saw things in life."
As Porter went about writing his Hippolytus, he was delighted at the similarities and differences that coincidentally appeared alongside the original Euripides and Racine's Phaedra, a neo-classical adaptation of the same tale. "If you compare the three versions together, some lines are almost identical word for word," Porter said. "And that's amazing, because I wrote most of my play without ever having a copy of Euripides or Racine in front of me."
In recent years, Porter's freely-adapted take on the tale of a queen's incestuous love for her chaste stepson has appeared in workshops and full productions in the U.S. and even in Asia.
"But I truly believe that Plan-B's production will be the best," said Porter at a recent rehearsal. "My experience working with Plan-B has been truly wonderful."
"Wonderful" would also be the word audiences could use to describe the majority of Plan-B Theatre Company's Hippolytus. Just like their last production of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, Plan-B has fashioned another theatrical experience that eschews traditional realism in favor of unconventional staging. And as usual, Plan-B has found a way to honor the text while making the play topical for today.
Those who saw the University of Utah Classical Greek Festival's stately but stolid production of Euripides' Hippolytus last fall may remember that it stretched on for nearly three hours. But in Porter's version, all it takes is one hour and 15 minutes (without intermission) to get at the meat and bones of the story.
Porter's adaptation follows the original Euripides very closely: Aphrodite, the goddess of love, sets out to destroy Hippolytus because of his supreme loyalty to the virgin goddess Artemis and complete disregard he shows her. Aphrodite makes Hippolytus' stepmother, Phaedra, fall uncontrollably in love him, ultimately causing her to commit suicide when her nurse reveals her secret desires to him.
But before Phaedra kills herself, she leaves a letter to her husband, Theseus, accusing Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus places a curse on Hippolytus and banishes him, ultimately leading to his wronged death.
While some may see Porter's condensed version of classic Euripides as sign of pandering to television-like audiences with short attention spans, it still basically tells the same story without the extra padding that weighs down the original.
Freed from the usual reverence that makes Greek theater feel like a chore or a faded museum piece, Plan-B uses Porter's text to their advantage, and expands upon it with a plethora of modern touches to make the play very much a product of today.
It's no coincidence that Hippolytus' violent diatribe about the inherent wickedness of women sounds very similar to the preachings at a Southern Baptist or Utah County Republican convention. Nor is his costume of farm overalls that reflect his extremist and backward views. And don't feel surprised if you feel that you've met Aphrodite at the Vortex or seen Phaedra in TV news clips of Leona Helmsley, as tunes from the '60s and '70s are played by Hippolytus' three live musicians.
Throughout Hippolytus, it's ingenious little bits and pieces like that that are sprinkled in by director Corey Thorell to make Euripides' examination of fundamentalism and extremism through a classically dysfunctional Greek family not too distant from the here and now.
Plan-B's Hippolytus boasts a powerhouse cast that makes most of Thorell's directing choices hit their target. At the successful core is a trio of leading actors who rotate through the play's major eight characters. While other actors might have gone overboard with the grandiose emotions of Greek tragedy, Lynn Petersen, Skye Meyers and Robert Bogue all keep their characters honest and believable.
That feat is especially amazing, since the entire cast conceal themselves behind large and inventively-designed metal mesh masks by Thorell and Randy Rasmussen. Instead of stifling the characters' emotions, the masks actually enhance them and make the tragedy more palpable.
Playing Aphrodite, Nurse and Theseus, Petersen deserves the most accolade for his chameleon powers of transforming from one character to another, along with his driving energy that commands the audience's attention.
Meyers brings a wonderfully world-wise metropolitan sensibility to Artemis (that we all secretly wish will greet religious fanatics) and wonderful stage presence to all her characters, while Bogue's Hippolytus is powerful and strong.
The only aspect of Hippolytus that may get on the audience's nerves is its Greek chorus, which occasionally spills out into the audience, as they chant, spin and moan with the near pretentiousness of self-indulgent performance art. While every one of their performances is expertly executed with skill and grace, they still carry an annoyance factor that initially takes some time to get accustomed to.
But aside from this very minor qualm, Plan-B's Hippolytus continues to do what Plan-B does best: tell a powerful story in a way that expands the boundaries of Salt Lake City's theatrical landscape.
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