In strictly contemporary terms, “Phèdre” is between a rock and a hard place. At the start of Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy, the title character believes her husband is dead, and she finds herself desperately in love with her stepson.
It doesn’t end well, of course. But watching Phèdre meet her fate is a thrilling theatrical experience — especially in the new American Conservatory Theater production, which opened Wednesday.
It’s surprising that ACT is just getting around to “Phèdre.” The company built its reputation on the classics, and it scores another triumph with this production.
This is no run-of-the-mill staging: co-produced with Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, featuring a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker and direction by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, this “Phèdre ” emerges clear and concise (about one hour and 50 minutes, no intermission), with a strikingly intimate feel.
That’s no easy feat. “Phèdre” is a hard play to categorize, and an even harder one to perform.
The story is based on Greek myth, but Racine was French Catholic; his version is more restrained, less cathartic, than the bloodbaths of typical Greek tragedy, and more than one director has gone awry trying to find the right tone for staging the work.
Perloff, who developed this production at Stratford, where it premiered in 2009, meets the challenge head-on with an elegant, streamlined production.
Sets by Christina Poddubiuk feature stark stone walls and metal trees, artfully lit by James F. Ingalls; David Lang contributes an evocative score for cello and percussion.
Wertenbaker’s language is spare and direct. It’s all very contemporary, with Poddubiuk’s rich 17th-century costumes the only concession to Racine’s era.
Cleared of unnecessary baggage, the action unfolds in a series of compact scenes, with the principal love triangle — Phèdre, her husband Theseus and his son, Hippolytus — offset by the relationship developing between Hippolytus and Aricie, the daughter of royals held captive by Theseus.
The turning point comes when Phèdre reveals her illicit love for Hippolytus; passion, politics and an intervention by the gods are the result.
The cast performs brilliantly. Seana McKenna savors the title character’s torment, as well as her poetic flights; Tom McCamus projects authority as Theseus, and Jonathan Goad is a solid presence as Hippolytus. Roberta Maxwell is wonderfully incisive as Oenone, Phèdre’s crafty nurse and covert advisor.
Sean Arbuckle lends intensity to his scenes as Theramene, aide to Hippolytus, and Claire Lautier is an aptly smooth-surfaced Aricie. Mairin Lee (Ismene) and Sophia Holman (Panope) play their roles capably.
Still, it’s Phèdre’s final scene that stays with you; Racine said the character was “neither entirely guilty nor entirely innocent,” and McKenna’s performance fills in all the shades of gray.
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays; plus 7 p.m. Jan. 24; closes Feb. 7
Tickets: $10 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org