Catherine Ashmore
Melissa Rose Bernardo
September 19, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Phedre

type
Stage
Current Status
In Season
performer
Dominic Cooper, Helen Mirren
director
Nicholas Hytner

We gave it an A-

Perhaps it?s Oscar winner Helen Mirren, who infuses the stepson-loving title character in this classic play with precisely the right balance of drama-queen theatrics and earthy sex appeal. Or the stunning translation of Jean Racine?s 17th-century drama by Ted Hughes (a.k.a. Mr. Sylvia Plath), which delivers verse upon verse of imagery so vivid that at one point you?ll swear you actually see a homicidal supernatural beast rising from an imaginary sea, ”half bull, half dragon?mouth hanging open, and bellowing, like a heavy surf, exploding in a cavern.” Or maybe it?s the crackling chemistry between the famously chaste, half-Amazon prince Hippolytus (Dominic Cooper) and Aricia (Ruth Negga), the daughter of his dad?s arch-rival. Britain’s National Theatre production of Phèdre — now playing at Washington, D.C.?s Shakespeare Theatre Company through Sept. 26 — offers indisputable proof that a tragedy does not need to be tragic through and through. Just because someone ends up in a body bag doesn?t mean you can?t have a good time.

Mirren certainly is. After she confesses her incestuous longings to the understandably horrified Hippolytus, she unbuttons her jacket to point his sword at her breast — and the gesture is not so much a death threat as an opportunity to give him a bird?s-eye view of her ample bosom. And Cooper, while conveying repulsion, still allows Hippolytus a moment or two to preen. (Between making movies like Mamma Mia! and the upcoming An Education, the actor has apparently been spending his time hitting the gym and pounding protein shakes.) Despite the lighter moments, this is still essentially a Greek tragedy, and you don?t need an oracle to tell you how it ends. But you?ll never see a more engaging — and enjoyable — Phèdre. A-

(Tickets: shakespearetheatre.org or 202-547-1122)

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