PHÈDRE at A.C.T. is a long evening

Phèdre (Seana McKenna, left) tries to find the courage to share her secret with her nurse Oenone (Roberta Maxwell). Photo by Erik Tomasson.

PHÈDRE by Jean Racine in a world premiere translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Director Carey Perloff (A co production Stratford Shakespeare Festival). American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, 415.749.2228, or at January 15-February 7, 2010


One could hardly call Jean Racine, the 17th century poet and playwright, a modernist but his play "Phedre" certainly brings memories of recent illicit love and politics making news throughout the United States. A.C.T. commissioned a new version and adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker in 2008 that was work-shopped, with an eventual world premiere, at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival directed by our own Carey Perloff. Perloff brought aboard American composer David Lang who created a stunning cello musical score that adds depth to a very verbose play. The Canadian cast, brought here for this production, included the talented Seana McKenna who astutely asked during early rehearsals, "I'm curious to know where we are in this play. Our characters pray to Greek gods, but we're wearing 17th-century French costumes while speaking the text in a modern translation underscored with music by an experimental American composer." She hit the nail right on the head and no more explanation is needed about the present production except to say that there is a whole lot of exposition needed to make sense of the complicated interpersonal relationships.

The extensive exposition clearly defines the characters' personalities and the politics of ancient Athens. Phedre is the wife of Theseus (Tom McCamus), the unlawful King of Athens, who has not returned from an expedition. Six months has passed and rumor has it that he is dead. Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) the son of Theseus and stepson of Phedre is secretly in love with Aricie, the true heir to the Athenian throne, being held captive by Theseus. Phedre wishes to preserve the throne for her son sired by Theseus. Phedre’s lust for Hippolytus (unconsummated) creates discord between visceral love, political ambition and parental devotion.

This brings to mind a cartoon from the New Yorker. Two young girls are conversing and the caption reads, “I guess oral sex is when they talk about it.” After a necessary, but dull, scene between Hippolytus and his tutor Theramene (Sean Arbuckle) to set the story in motion there is a spark interest when Oenone (Roberta Maxwell) and Phedre talk and talk about the lustful potential incestuous relationship. And, the story goes on from there with Phedre eventually taking poison giving McKenna an opportunity to indulge in a dramatic dying scene on Christina Poddubiuk’s gray dreary atmospheric set with David Lang’s dynamic cello music underscoring James F. Ingall’s moody lighting.

Running time is one hour and 45 minutes without intermission but if you consider Henri Bergson’s theory of relative time, it seems longer.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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