When it comes to tragedies, nothing puts butts in seats like a good old-fashioned tale of incest. Oedipus had four children with his mother; Dustin Hoffman couldn't resist the wiles of that original MILF, Anne Bancroft; Woody married Soon-Yi.
The current A.C.T. production of Timberlake Wertenbaker's translation and adaptation of Jean Racine's 1677 Phèdre, now through February 7, 2010 at the American Conservatory Theater, is in this grand, forbidden-love tradition. It should be inappropriate, it should be passionate, it should make every mother and son in the audience squirm. Instead, we are punished by colorless acting, rigid -- if beautiful -- 17th-century costumes, a boring park-and-bark directing style, and a complete lack of connection, let alone chemistry, between the two principals.
The trouble begins in the first scene, when we meet king Theseus's son Hippolytus (Jonathan Goad) and his tutor, Théramène (Sean Arbuckle), who is too close in age to his student for the pairing to be believable. With his monotone, William Shatner-like delivery, Goad fails to convince us of the torment in his heart. Instead, he comes off as a whiner -- "my daddy gets to slay monsters; I want to slay monsters, too."
This being a tragedy, Hippolytus is also looking for an excuse to get as far away as possible from the woman he loves, Aricie (Claire Lautier), whose family is his father's mortal enemy (gotta love the "Romeo and Juliet" subplot). This business of fleeing from problems -- whether by leaving his home of Trézène, as Hippolytus vows to do, or by leaving this mortal coil, as his stepmother, Phèdre (Seana McKenna), will soon threaten -- is one of the play's richest themes. But the audience can take no pleasure in this foreshadowing because the actors are so detached from the words flowing from their mouths. In fact, many of the words that Wertenbaker has pulled from the original Racine are wonderful to listen to, but the actors are as isolated from their characters as they are from their colleagues on stage, creating a chasm between the audience and the spectacle we've been invited to witness.
Phèdre, as you probably know, is secretly in love with Hippolytus, her stepson. This sort of thing runs in her family -- Phèdre's mother mated with a bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, so mom was not exactly a role model. But in McKenna, I didn't see a woman condemned by Venus's curse, though Phèdre claims that fate. I saw histrionics, which didn't help when it came time for an unhinged Phèdre to confess her love to moody Hippolytus. In order for there to be tension between these two, we in the audience have to be able to at least entertain the possibility that icky sparks might actually begin to fly, that Hippolytus's knees might buckle. In McKenna and director Carey Perloff's hands, though, Phèdre's tragedy is not the mere utterance of her desires; it is her pathetic inability to do anything about it.
Naturally Theseus is not dead, as has been announced earlier in the play. Phèdre's husband's death had been the catalyst behind her confession to Hippolytus, but I for one was glad that dear old dad had survived long enough to take the stage. As Theseus, Thomas McCamus wakes this production up. He bellows, he struts, and it's not just his character that swaggers. McCamus owns his role in a way the other leads don't. We trust his bluster and wince at his pride because we believe both. In the end, I left the theater feeling like this version of Phèdre was more Theseus's story than Phèdre's, which is perhaps the cruelest punishment the theater gods could heap upon the play's ostensible lead.
The A.C.T. production of Phèdre runs through February 7, 2010 at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit act-sf.org.