Reviewed by Judy Richter
American Conservatory Theater audiences have a chance to see a rarely performed 17th century French classic, Jean Racine's "Phèdre," in an approachable 21st century translation and adaptation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. They also have a chance to see actors from Canada's distinguished Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where ACT artistic director Carey Perloff directed it last summer. Now she has brought all of the principal actors as well as the design team to her own theater. The result is intellectually interesting if not always emotionally engaging.
The plot revolves around Phèdre (Seana McKenna), wife of Theseus (Tom McCamus), king of Athens, who has been absent for six months. He has left her in the care of his son -- her stepson -- Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad). Hence he has put his wife in close proximity to the young man she has been trying to avoid because she's in love with him. In other words, she harbors both incestuous and adulterous thoughts that have caused her emotional and physical anguish. For his part, Hippolytus loves Aricie (Claire Lautier), member of a family that has been enemies to Theseus. Believing Theseus to be dead, Phèdre confesses her love to Hippolytus, who's appalled. When she finds out about his feelings for Aricie, jealousy rears its head. Oenone (Roberta Maxwell), Phèdre's nurse, with Phèdre's approval, tells Theseus, who has unexpectedly returned, that Hippolytus has lusted after his stepmother. Thus Theseus turns against his son. This being tragedy, nothing ends well.
Despite some fine acting, especially by McKenna and McCamus as the queen and king and by Maxwell as Oenone, there's a static feeling about this production. It's not helped by Goad, who shows little passion as Hippolytus.
Dominated by woven wire columns and accented by James F. Ingalls' lighting, the scenery and 17th century costumes are by Christina Poddubiuk. The contemporary music is by David Lang.
Despite its centuries-old origins in ancient Greece and 17th century Catholic France, the characters and plot of "Phèdre" could -- with updating -- find themselves at home in today's society, where lust, jealousy and guilt have never been totally tamed.