Phèdre at ACT

Dave and I saw the opening night of Phèdre at ACT Wednesday night, the Racine play in a new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Physically it’s a very attractive though somewhat austere production, but the direction and performances are mostly understated to the point of dullness. This is a 17th-century French take on an ancient Greek tragedy, for heaven’s sake, and it cries out for intense, exhausting, bravura, larger-than-life acting. The acting in this production, though, is careful and cautious and very much smaller than life.

The only two actors who seemed to me to be in the right ballpark were Seana McKenna as Phèdre and Roberta Maxwell as her servant and confidante Oenone. Both of them seemed most of the time to be cruising at half strength, though; it felt like they both had the chops to give larger performances but were deliberately holding back. Why on earth were they directed in this way? Just crazy. Their scenes together were by far the very best thing in the production, but even those could have been so much better. Phèdre’s big second-act scene with Hippolytus, which is usually the most emotionally charged in the play, came off as a bit awkward because of the difference in intensity between Phèdre’s passionate, tormented reading and Hippolytus’s absurdly low-key one. Theseus wasn’t all that much better, and when Theramenes entered near the end of the play and told Theseus of his son’s horrifyingly grisly death — which Theseus himself helped bring about through his rashness and anger — it was startling that Theramenes’ tearful account had about thirty times more passion in it than Theseus’s stifled reaction.

One thing that had occurred to me is that this production premiered in Stratford, Ontario, with the same cast, and perhaps it was in a much smaller theater there and the cast has for some reason not made the adjustments needed in their acting to carry out to a larger hall. A little web research shows that this is the case, and the theater it played in in Stratford was less than half the size of the Geary. However, while researching this I also came across some reviews of the Stratford production, and several of them said much the same thing, that this production has (to quote one of them) a “general lack of voltage”. To quote another,

While all the actors in the production turn in solid performances — particularly Tom McCamus as Theseus, Roberta Maxwell as Oenone the nurse, and McKenna in the lead — they seem to be working independently of one another. While one character delivers a gut-wrenching confession or tirade, the others just stand statue-still and stare.

That’s a pretty good description of the big central scene between Phèdre and Hippolytus.

Dave and I were saying afterward that later in the run, if the actors get out from under the director’s control and after they’ve had a few weeks in front of live audiences, the performances may well find a more natural level of intensity better suited to the play. Lord knows I’ve seen that happen.

I was particularly disappointed because the play itself is one I admire a lot — the amount of emotional detail in the writing, the way that in those long speeches the shades of emotion are constantly shifting and yet always drawn so sharply, all of that just astonishes me. But that emotional complexity and subtlety is precisely why the play calls for larger-than-life performances in which the actors really convey those subtle shifts of emotion through their acting, not just stand back and let the words do nearly all the work.

The translation seemed okay to me, but I’d have to spend some time reading it myself to be sure what I think, because I don’t think it was given the sort of reading it needed. The audience laughed more than a few times at lines here and there that seemed absurd, but I came away thinking that the problem was more that the lackluster performances made the poetic intensity of the lines seem out of place, when really it was the other way around, that the intensity of the language was appropriate — I mean, if we don’t want that kind of heightened poetic language in the theater, why are we doing 17th-century French drama in the first place? — and it was the matter-of-fact way in which the lines were read that was a mistake. Take away the brilliance and passion of those raging torrents of poetry and Phèdre doesn’t have much left; you kinda gotta go with it or leave it alone and do some other play more to your taste.

Carey Perloff boasts in the program that this translation “has avoided the rhyming that often makes English translations of French slightly laughable”, which seems rather a shallow thing to say; certainly there are laughable rhymed translations of French verse plays, but it isn’t the rhyming that makes them laughable, it’s either the writer’s lack of poetic skill or the performers’ lack of skill and experience in performing a sort of drama that is no longer native to us, or both. My very best experiences in the theater with Molière and Racine have been seeing good productions of Richard Wilbur’s rhymed translations, and when the lines are spoken with intention and conviction, the rhymes are not laughable, just a convention that gives shape and a kind of power to the verse. Whereas in this production there was laughter in the audience at a dozen or so inappropriate moments anyway, and not one of them can be blamed on a rhyme.

ACT performs Phèdre without intermission. The whole thing only runs about an hour and a half, but it feels longer and they really would have benefited from a short break in the middle.

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