PARIS — Ancient myths hold unusual sway in France. Latin and, to a lesser extent, ancient Greek retain prestige as school subjects, and classical erudition is prized as an unmistakable social marker. When President Emmanuel Macron enthused about “Jupiter-like” leadership during his campaign, referring to the Roman king of the gods, people knew what it meant, and the description stuck.
And the country’s theater makers have long used the language of mythology to react to changing times. This spring, two directors, Christiane Jatahy and Louise Vignaud, strayed away from the standard French repertoire to take a fresh look at “The Odyssey” as well as the Greek heroine Phaedra — and tackle gender roles, corruption and migration in the process.
In “Ithaque (Notre Odyssée 1),” Ms. Jatahy, a Brazilian-born director who is an associate artist at the Odéon theater here, exploits the possibilities of the playhouse’s second stage, the Ateliers Berthier, to the full.
Originally used as a temporary home for the Odéon during renovation work between 2002 and 2006, Berthier has become the versatile foil to the main theater’s Italian-style proscenium. For “Ithaque (Notre Odyssée 1),” Ms. Jatahy has split the space in half with beaded curtains. And there is a trick: The audience members on each side see different plays.
On one half of the stage, the action takes place on Ogygia, the island where Ulysses meets the nymph Calypso — and stays for seven years, in a lengthy detour from his journey home. Ithaca, where his wife, Penelope, waits for him while fending off potential suitors, is on the other side.
The production’s setup occasionally feels like a gimmick, but it is intriguing: All six actors play characters in both story lines, both live and in video projections, and go back and forth between the two parts of the stage. During the first half of the performance, the audience hears the clamor from the other side but doesn’t know what is happening there — until it is instructed to stand up and move to the opposite part of the auditorium, where the action starts again from the beginning.
Ms. Jatahy has found a home for her multimedia experiments in Paris in recent years. In addition to her company’s tours, she was commissioned last year by the Comédie-Française to adapt Jean Renoir’s classic 1939 film “The Rules of the Game,” albeit with mixed results. “Ithaque (Notre Odyssée 1)” reflects her growing ties to the country: Alongside three women from her Brazil-based ensemble, who moved fluidly between French and Portuguese, she cast three French actors.
As often with Ms. Jatahy, there is no “fourth wall” to speak of in “Ithaque (Notre Odyssée 1).” The cast established a warm rapport with the audience, passing chips and peanuts around, even singling out one onlooker to chat. Characters proved fluid, too: The women all took turns playing Calypso and Penelope, opposite different Ulysses.
The action — Ulysses’ struggle to break free of Calypso’s hold, his return to Ithaca — comes in fits and starts, with unfortunate lulls throughout. What Ms. Jatahy succeeds in conveying, however, is a sense of lawlessness and despair, compounded by the misogynist violence that emerges as Penelope tries to distract her boisterous guests. In the playbill, the director cited corruption in Brazil as one inspiration, as well as the plight of refugees in Europe — at one point, a performer reads from real-life migrant stories.
Over the course of the performance, the space between the two parts of the stage slowly fills with a shallow pool of water. The curtains parting the auditorium are ultimately raised for Ulysses’ massacre of Penelope’s suitors, which both halves of the audience see at the same time. In this “Odyssey,” however, the violence brings no catharsis: The damage is done, and the water remains.
Instead of a contemporary makeover, Ms. Vignaud went the opposite route with the myth of Phaedra, wife of Theseus, who sexually pursues her stepson Hippolytus after the disappearance of her husband. For her debut at the Comédie-Française, the young director — Ms. Vignaud is only 29 — opted to turn back the clock and stage a rarely seen Latin play, Seneca the Younger’s telling of the tale of Phaedra.
It turns out to be more urgent, in many ways, than French literature’s go-to “Phèdre,” Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy. This supremely classical work is one of Racine’s finest creations, but its characters often have a remote quality in performance.
On the contrary, Seneca’s play (in Florence Dupont’s translation) has a warmer, more human tone. Cuts were made for this spare, 80-minute production, performed on the Comédie-Française’s smaller Studio stage, but Phaedra emerges as a defiant woman in a man’s world. She pulls no punches: After declaring her husband, Theseus, “a sodomite and an adulterer,” she proceeds to explain why the bull her mother, Pasiphae, mated with was a better lover than him.
It’s a startling moment, as is her cunning manipulation of her nurse (played by the excellent Claude Mathieu), usually recognized as one of Racine’s great Machiavellian confidantes. As Phaedra, Jennifer Decker was languor itself, with a callous side: She is very much in charge as she seduces Hippolytus, then lies to Theseus upon his surprise return. Only Nâzim Boudjenah seemed miscast as the young Hippolytus. His lack of chemistry with Ms. Decker robbed Ms. Vignaud’s production of some of the simmering tension that was clearly intended. Still, she has the instincts of an original director: She is one to follow.
Elsewhere, the Comédie-Française troupe took to one of its other two stages, the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, with another play inspired by a legend, albeit a German one: Goethe’s “Faust.” Its duo of directors, Valentine Losseau and Raphaël Navarro, are both magicians; in the early 2000s, they were co-founders of the “new magic” movement, which aimed to strip illusion-based theater of its outdated conventions.
They trained the Comédie-Française cast in their craft for the occasion, and the result is visually astonishing. The opening scene, in which Mephistopheles the devil visits God and bets on the fate of the erudite Dr. Faust, sees both these supernatural beings hovering in the air on invisible chairs, as if freed from gravity. The role of Mephistopheles is a true gift to Christian Hecq, one of the most distinctive character actors at the Comédie-Française. Weightless and buoyant, he turned his tricks into sly, superlative comedy.
Ms. Losseau and Mr. Navarro’s direction is less compelling when no special effects are required. While Laurent Natrella made a fine, restless Faust, his seduction of Marguerite and her subsequent downfall lacked potency. An appearance by the Comédie-Française director Éric Ruf, who harangued the audience as himself in an introduction to the performance, proved a memorable addition, but Goethe’s 19th-century play is often more heavy-handed, in moral terms, than Seneca’s Roman-era take on a Greek myth. On stage, historical distance often means nothing: Dramatic relevance can emerge when you least expect it.