After watching Courtney Walsh’s vivid, muscular performance as the tragic heroine in Phèdre, Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’ ” came to mind. She writes, “Camp and tragedy are antitheses.” Under Ariel Craft’s direction, Walsh walked a delicate line between those two opposing sensibilities. Her Phèdre was never tiresome or a bore, but neither was she entirely pitiable.
Walsh’s talent is arresting. From beginning to end, she commanded attention with a combination of her mastery of the text and her physical stature. When she spoke, the dialogue sounded unforced, contemporary. To indicate her status as a queen, the actress dressed in jewels, heels, and jewel-toned satins. Thus attired, she projected the illusion (in some cases) of being a foot taller than everybody else. When she wasn’t onstage, her aura still filled up the space. Her absence excited our sense of anticipation, “When would she return, and in what condition?”
As the plot developed, Walsh exhibited enormous range. Admitting to her stepson Hippolytus (Ed Berkeley) that she was in love with him produced a variety of emotional reactions: anguish, self-mockery, anxiety, guilt. She had them all at her disposal. If we weren’t shedding cathartic tears for scorned Phèdre, then perhaps Walsh didn’t believe we should. To fall in love with your stepson is an unenviable position to be in. But being self-indulgent about an unrequited, mad passion? That’s considered the behavior of a drama queen, not a real one.
Neither Walsh’s portrayal of Phèdre nor Phèdre on the whole lands in an extravagant place. By Sontag’s definition then, this production doesn’t qualify as Camp, “The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.” All the actors are tonally in the same drama, a major accomplishment for a 21st-century company staging a 17th-century French play. The language in Rob Melrose’s translation of Racine is elevated but not alienating. No one in the cast failed to make it sound natural.
It’s Walsh, though, who delivers one of those towering performances that’s worth a second or even third viewing. Not because her approach could be considered inconsistent or erratic — it was as magnetic as it was carefully modulated. She was feeling her way from the inside out to the edge of Phèdre’s skin. And if she reached that edge, something appallingly fragile might break through on any given night.
The way that it does for Margit Carstensen as the title character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The German director allows Carstensen to shamelessly embrace her self-pity over a failed love affair. And Petra does so until she loses all reason. Phèdre, too, deserves our bitter tears. They’re the ones that ultimately blur the line between Camp and tragedy.
Phèdre, through May 21, at Cutting Ball Theater, 277 Taylor St., 415-525-1205 or cuttingball.com