Reviewed by Jeff Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle
The American Conservatory Theater (ACT) is currently performing a bold and highly creative rendering of Racine's PHEDRE.
While the content is the surely the stuff of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; the playwright wrote in the epic style of the classical tragedians from a parlor in mid-seventeenth century Paris.
In 2009, Timberlake Wertenbaker translated and adapted the French script to the American stage.
As with all Greek tragedy, once the first domino falls, the audience senses the inevitability of all that follows and yet inwardly resists the unfolding catastrophe, even until the last domino is supine.
Carey Perloff has worked a minor theatrical miracle with a play that qualitatively approximates what was once the premium fare at the Great Dionysian Theater of the Athenian Golden Age.
Phedre, superbly played by Seana McKenna, is the catalytic axel about which this tragedy turns: frailty is her strongest suit.
Phedre is weak and self-indulgent; in her self-absorption she provokes and unleashes the fury of her husband Theseus against his son and her step son: Hippolytus.
Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur i.e. Phedre's half brother, is brash and too confidently takes the perfidious bait dangled by Phedre.
Tom McCamus is stupendous as Theseus: he perfectly portrays the opaque density of a man who has exhausted his heroic nature and now his greatness only serves as his undoing.
A stunning set design by Christina Poddubiuk creates an immediate sense of foreshadowing and impending kibitzing by the meddling gods who languish on Olympus.
The performance incorporates origin music by David Lang.
ACT is a theatre company that is not afraid to take risks.
In performing PHEDRE, it has taken on a truly great play for which the audience carries its expectations into the theater.
Given the grandeur is this production, those expectations are exceeded.
ACT's PHEDRE is not to be missed.
Contact the box office at 415-749-2ACT.