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Cougar Prototype 

The Loft launches a series of high-def filmed play presentations

Lust, infidelity, murder. All good stuff," says Jeff Yanc, program director at the Loft Cinema.

He's all but salivating over a Loft special presentation this weekend: Jean Racine's classical stage tragedy Phèdre, with Helen Mirren in the title role. Unusually for the Loft, this isn't really a movie, but a play, recorded before an audience on June 25 at London's National Theatre.

A high-definition document of that performance will be screened at the Loft this Sunday at 1 p.m., and repeated Tuesday at 7 p.m. It's part of a new initiative by the National Theatre to beam its performances into about 250 art-film houses around the English-speaking world, just as the Metropolitan Opera has been transmitting some of its matinees to commercial movie theaters.

"The plays are filmed in HD, and we'll be projecting them with our brand-new, high-end HD digital projector, which was funded by Cox Communications," Yanc says. "It really looks spectacular." He likens the image to live TV rather than film; it's sharper and flatter than the more textured look of film.

This series of plays shouldn't really compete with what local live theaters are doing; Racine is a major theatrical figure, but his plays are almost never produced in Tucson.

Racine was one of France's three greatest 17th-century playwrights. (The others were comedy master Molière and tragedian Pierre Corneille, who is unfortunately an utter foreigner to local stages.) Of the three, Racine was most strongly influenced by the structure and aesthetics of ancient Greek tragedy, with the characters fretting and emoting over developments that have taken place offstage.

Racine generally employed historical and mythological subjects. Phèdre is probably his best-known work among English speakers; it's the story of Phaedra, wife of Athenian king Theseus. She harbors a secret lust for Hippolytus, Theseus' son by another woman; Hippolytus, meanwhile, is in love with the daughter of a royal family his father has overthrown. Lies, power struggles and multiple deaths ensue.

"It's very soapy," Yanc says. "I guess the character of Phèdre is a cougar prototype, given her thing for her young stepson. Juicy."

When the Met started showing its opera productions in movie theaters, many small opera companies complained that the Met's glamorous shows might draw audiences away from local productions. Yanc says he's trying to keep peace with Tucson theater companies as this season's four theatrical presentations begin.

"Really, the idea behind this is that it would create more of an appetite for live theater in Tucson," he insists. "The hope is that people who might not go to the theater will be more apt to try a play in a movie theater with a big star like Helen Mirren, and once they do that, they'll be inclined to see what live theater is like in town."

Yanc says that the National Theatre presentations also offer a chance to show off the Loft's new digital HD projector. At the same time, he wants to assure film buffs that the indie house is not giving up on traditional film.

"We're still committed to 35mm film," he says, "but sometimes, smaller films, especially documentaries, are only distributed digitally now. So with this projector, we can show a lot of things we couldn't before."

Upcoming presentations in the National Theatre Live series include Shakespeare's All's Well That Ends Well, starring Clare Higgins; Nation, based on the novel by best-selling fantasy writer Terry Pratchett; and The Habit of Art, by award-winning playwright Alan Bennett, author of The History Boys.

"They all look like plays that have a wide appeal," Yanc says. "And I'm a live theater fan myself, so it's exciting to me personally."

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