Isn’t It Tragic

22. January, 2010 Theater No comments

After the typically slow first half of January, this was a particularly busy theatre week around the Bay Area, not least because ACT and Berkeley Rep’s openings were set for the same night.

Seana McKenna as Phèdre. Photo by Erik Tomasson

Wednesday ACT kicked off 2010, its building’s hundredth anniversary, with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s new translation of Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy Phèdre, inspired by Euripides’ Hippolytus. Aphrodite has cursed the titular wife of Theseus and daughter of Minos to fall in love with her stepson Hippolytus, Theseus’s son by the Amazon Hippolyta and Phèdre’s bitter rival because he stands in the way of her own children’s hopes for succession. Hippolytus meanwhile is in love with Aricie, heir to the royal family of Athens that Theseus conquered, a prisoner commanded to remain chaste to ensure no further heirs.  All these hidden feelings quickly come to the forefront when Theseus is reported dead while abroad and the question of who will inherit his lands becomes an immediate one.

Playwright Wertenbaker also translated ACT’s productions of Euripides’ Hecuba and Sophocles’ Antigone in the 1990s, both of which, like this one, were directed by artistic director Carey Perloff. The ACT run is billed as a world premiere, which is not true. Although you could see why the company would want to claim it because it commissioned and workshopped the translation and it’s directed by ACT’s artistic director, it’s what usually would be called the world premiere production, as it actually premiered at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival last August in the first coproduction between the two companies.

Wertenbaker has translated Racine’s verse without updating it, using elegant language peppered with archaisms reminiscent of the English of his day. Interestingly enough, her translation uses the French names for most characters (Phèdre rather than Phaedra, for instance) but not for Theseus and Hippolytus.

Designer Christina Poddubiuk has created a remarkable semi-industrial set with tall columns of what at first appear to be twisted vines but upon closer examination are ridged plastic tubing. The abstract and evocative scenery is all the more striking because the production is in period dress—that is to say, Racine’s period of the 17th century, not ancient Greece. The men wear doublets and rapiers and the women simple gowns, mostly in a bleak gray and brown palette. David Lang’s moody cello score only accentuates the air of gloom.

And even for a tragedy, it’s a relentlessly gloomy play. There’s no trace of comic relief as you might find in a Renaissance English tragedy. Whatever chuckles were heard on opening night seemed mostly spurred by melodramatically over-the-top statements made with extreme seriousness.

While Perloff’s production is a staid and dreary affair, it curiously doesn’t seem longer than its nearly two hours without intermission, largely because time is compressed in the play and events progress before people are through soliloquizing about the last thing that happened. Hardly has Phèdre confessed her love than she suddenly knows her husband is on his way home.

Tedium sets in right off the bat in a static opening expository scene between Jonathan Goad’s soft-spoken Hippolytus and Sean Arbuckle as his similarly low-key mentor Théramène, whom one would rather guess to be a sidekick, manservant or best friend. (Or more than friend, with all this talk of despising all women, but there’s no such chemistry in the performance.)

Although she seems more naive schoolgirl than princess, Claire Lautier has her moments of flustered romance as the passive ingénue Aricie, and Goad seems to stir awake a little in awkwardly wooing her. Roberta Maxwell is a bit plodding and overwrought as the spiteful nurse Oenone, whose advice to Phèdre reliably makes matters much, much worse, particularly when she counsels her lady to tell her husband that Hippolytus tried to put moves on her. Although Tom McCamus has a rich and resonant voice as a preening Theseus, he’s believable neither in regal or heroic bearing nor in the emotional content of any of his scenes.  It was probably a mistake for Poddubiuk to dress Theseus in long robes, because McCamus fiddles with his cape incessantly as if afraid he’ll trip over it.

While the rest of the cast is straight out of Stratford, two ACT MFA students do some bright work in minor roles: Sophia Holman as lady-in-waiting Panope (who functions mostly as a messenger, bearing news of one tragic development or another) and Mairin Lee as Aricie’s confidante Ismène. (Everyone has a confidante in the play except Theseus, and things would have probably gone much better for all concerned if he had.)

The one true standout performance, appropriately enough, is Seana McKenna as Phèdre. McKenna embodies the many twists and nuances of the queen’s passion well, from the way she can scarcely look at Hippolytus when she addresses him to the later breakneck turns of shock, repentance, jealousy and spite. While the entire action of the play is too placid to move the audience, you can well believe that Phèdre herself is moved.

Interestingly, the most effective moment of the production, at the very end, seems to capitalize on that very sense of distance.  One character meets a sad and prolonged end while the others turn their back and walk away, not so much in a shunning gesture as simply without a second thought.  A tragedy has occurred, and no one seems to give a damn.

Through February 7
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #6 of 2010, attended January 20.

About author

No comments yet.

Be first to leave your comment!




Your comment:

Add your comment