Friday, January 22, 2010

Phèdre, at A.C.T.

Phèdre (Seana McKenna) prays to Venus, the goddess that torments her. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Guest blogger Janos Gereben reviews A.C.T.'s Phedre:

Jean Racine has always been respected and performed in Europe, but he is virtually nonexistent in contemporary American theater. I was schooled "over there" and Racine has always been in my blood, but never in my heart. Until tonight.

Carey Perloff and the American Conservatory Theater have made Racine's 1677 "Phèdre" (http://tinyurl.com/yd5uckl) into a colorful, beautifully shaded, surprising, and altogether glorious show. Show, not a molding classic. Gripping, entertaining, memorable theater.

Surprises just keep coming:
  • Instead of a one-note downer about a tragic queen, this is an amazing "soap," with occasional laughter, frequent smiles, and yet the majestic drama comes through.
  • Forget the original's Alexandrine verses and rhymed couplets, the translation/adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker is simple, easy to understand; the language serves the drama, does not loom between the stage and the audience.
  • If you expect to be lost in a French interpretation of complex Greek mythology about the founder-king of Athens (Theseus) and his divine and mortal relations, fear not. Thanks to Wertenbaker, Perloff's direction, and the magnificent cast, it all makes sense, the story unfolds with great simplicity.
  • In stunning contrast with A.C.T.'s sorry record of never having produced decent Shakespeare in either traditional or "updated" manner, here's a classic that maintains its integrity and yet speaks our language.
Perloff herself appreciates the impossible task, quoting an early response by Seana McKenna, who plays the title role: "Where are we? Our characters pray to Greek gods, but we're wearing 17th century French costumes while speaking the text in modern translation underscored with music by an experimental American composer (David Lang)."

The wonder of it all is that it all comes together, virtually seamlessly. There are only a few moments when the suspension of disbelief isn't complete (the manner, not the story, of Theseus' arrival back from the dead is one), and almost every one of the production's 105 minutes (without intermission) is in the flow.

Perloff brought her production and most of the cast from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (so the claim of "world premiere" is wrong), and a remarkable cast it is.

McKenna doesn't portray the tragic queen you'd expect. She is human and believable in her suffering of the uncontrollable, illicit love for her stepson, Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad), while fully realizing how wrong it is. As she goes and back and forth between passion and reason, the moments when morality overcomes obsession become etched in the viewer's memory.

Phèdre (Seana McKenna) finally tells her stepson Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) that she loves him. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Phèdre's servant (and the culprit in the play's central human-caused disaster) is Roberta Maxwell; hers is a starring performance of a supporting role. Claire Lautier as Aricie (the object of Hippolytus' affections, to Phèdre's undoing) at first appears not quite up to the high standard of the rest of the cast, but in her climactic scene with Theseus, she is all the stronger and more effective against the initial impression.

Christina Poddubiuk's costumes and - especially - scenery are outstanding. The stark, overwhelming unit set of metal columns, in James F. Ingalls' lighting, is exactly right.

Congratulations, A.C.T. This could be a good time to start on a long-range project to bring Shakespeare to life too.


Joe Barron said...

What is it with older women and younger guys in these Greek myths? Jocasta was old enough to be Oedipus' mother.

Anonymous said...

This play, which I saw yesterday, was very oddly staged. The costumes, which evoked Colonial Williamsburg more than ancient Greece, were hard to get used to. The decision to do the play all in one go without dividing it into acts as Racine had or having an intermission was a very bad one. The audience needed the breaks. Perhaps they were too afraid everyone would leave at intermission and therefore decided to "lock us in" to staying. Numerous audience members who could stand it no longer left anyway part way through. An ambitious play to undertake for us folks of short attention span. I almost fell asleep. The worst theatre experience I have had in a very long time.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I haven't seen "Phedre" and probably will not, as I'm going out of town shortly. Thank you for the comments!

The costuming is typical of 17th C. French drama, which would have been done in costuming contemporary to the period in which the play was written. It's the same in Shakespeare: he would have expected "Julius Caesar" to be staged in early 17th. C. clothing, not togas.