Perloff promotes power of ‘Phèdre’ 

Carey Perloff is astonished by the question of whether a classic French drama from 1677 about a mythical Greek queen’s tragedy (borrowed from Euripides) may be a hard sell in today’s audience-friendly theater world of one-liners.

Will 100 minutes of intense internal turmoil, without intermission, attract and hold today’s theater fans?

“What could be more interesting,” she retorts, “than French eroticism, a great struggle between lust and morality, a gripping psychological mystery with great relevance to our age, using simple and beautiful language?”

What indeed, the questioner relents. ACT’s artistic director, who is staging a new production of Jean Racine’s “Phèdre,” has the unquestioning self-confidence and authority of the Queen of Thebes ... without her problems, guilt and agony. Yet Perloff understands Phèdre’s conflicts and thinks they are relevant today.

The wife of King Theseus — legendary founder-king of Athens — fell in love with her stepson, Hippolytus, and then faced the resulting series of conflict and tragedy.

Perloff’s interest in classic French and German drama is due, in part, to the primacy of women in those plays — as opposed to, say, Shakespeare, with men as heroes.

“I have always adored Racine and great French drama in general because of the prominence of women in leading roles,” Perloff says.

Racine, in his forward to the play, agreed with Perloff’s regard for Phèdre: “Perhaps the most compelling character I have put upon the stage. ... She is ensnared, through her destiny and the wrath of the Gods, in an illegitimate passion by which she is the very first to be horrified.”

Perloff premiered this new translation by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and she is bringing it — with Seana McKenna in the title role — to her home company for the U.S. premiere.

Rather than the original’s Alexandrine verses and rhymed couplets (“English in rhymes usually sounds comical,” Perloff says), Wertenbaker’s text is in blank verse.



American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: Opens Saturday; 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. most Wednesdays, Saturdays-Sundays; plus 7 p.m. Sunday and Jan. 24; closes Feb. 7
Tickets: $10 to $82
Contact: (415) 749-2228,

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