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Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Olympia Dukakis Triumphs in Hecuba

By Reed Brown

Olympia Dukakis gives a stunningly magnificent performance in the title role in Euripides' timeless tragedy, which opened on October 21 and runs through November 22 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. The American Conservatory Theater production, a revival (with revisions) of a three-year-old production, is not without its uncomfortable aspects, but Dukakis' tour-de-force performance leaves the audience with something unforgettable.

As the deposed queen of Troy awaiting removal to Greece as a slave, Hecuba must face the sacrifice of her daughter on the grave of Achilles and the murder of her son, as well as the deaths of the rest of her family in the Trojan War. Rising from a pit in a cloud of mist, under the looming sail of the ship that will carry her away, Dukakis makes Hecuba's grief palpable. It fills the theater, making the audience understand exactly why she she wants nothing except the end of pain.

Her voice, her gestures, her stance all communicate a psychological and emotional pain that is almost beyond the capacity of human endurance. But endure she does, gaining strength as she faces those who caused her grief, and extracts a grisly and horrific revenge.

Dukakis is an actress of incredible depth and range. Those who remember her in the film "Moonstruck," for which she won an Academy Award, or in the television series "Tales of the City" and "More Tales of the City," may not immediately recognize her in this production. This Hecuba will make you both cringe at the unimaginable pain of having to survive the death of everything held dear, and admire the courage it takes to overcome that grief. The gentleness with which Dukakis played "Tales" Anna Madrigal, for example, is wholly lacking in this portrayal.

Instead we see her struggle to carry the body of her murdered son after it washes up on the beach, and see her retreat into a shawl, as if unable to comprehend the pending sacrifice of her daughter. She emerges from the shawl only to use it as a shroud for her son. Her voice cracks with a weight she is almost unable to bear, as she cringes from her fate. Then we see her stand taller, her voice steadier and calmer, filled with hate, as her fate is avenged. Representing every person who has had to face a life that is totally altered by circumstances beyond their control, we see her regain an awful control, and know that she has survived, and will continue to survive, as she must.

The play has been translated and adapted by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Overall, perhaps because of Dukakis' towering performance, the adaptation is effective. It is, though, as if Wertenbaker is condescending to her audience at some times. There are references to slogans used in anti-war protests of the Viet Nam era, and some gratuitous contemporary references that bring embarrassed titters from the audience. Hecuba is a story set in its own time and place, yet timeless. We don't need to be reminded of its timelessness with references to our own era.

Directed by A.C.T.'s artistic director, Carey Perloff, the play is wonderfully staged. A massive pier stands under the furled sail of the ship that, when the winds change, will carry Hecuba and other Trojan widows to slavery in Greece. At the end of the pier are rude tents the women must occupy as they await further degradation at the hands of the victors who have already ravaged their lives.

A chorus, provided by the vocal ensemble KITKA, with an original score by David Lang, haunts the action. The music provides commentary on the action, as a chorus was intended to do, through the dissonant, foreboding, and grief-stricken tones of the music.

Kate Edmunds' set provides little room for the ensemble to move, but is entirely appropriate. The lighting, by Peter Maradudin, is entirely effective.

The supporting cast is overshadowed by Dukakis' stunning performance. Michelle Shay as the Chorus Leader takes histrionics to new heights and can give the audience the shivers, like fingernails on a chalkboard. If Perloff intended her to be foreboding, she is merely forbidding. Roxanne Raja as Hecuba's daughter, Polyxena, gives a lackluster performance, failing to communicate what one would think would be grief at being torn from her mother and facing her own certain death.

L. Peter Callender, Marco Barricelli, Steven Anthony Jones, and Apollo Dukakis (Olympia's brother) round out the principal cast. They turn in perfectly fine performances, adequately backing up Olympia Dukakis' wrenching rendition.

Finally, regardless of it's notable flaws, the evening belongs to Dukakis. She overcomes and overwhelms. Hecuba is one of the most memorable 100 minutes (with no intermission) of theater that anyone will see this season, or in any season.

(Hecuba runs through November 22 at the Geary Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are available at the box office and through BASS.)

Olympia Dukakis Online

American Conservatory Theater and Contra Costa Newspapers will host an online chat with the Academy Award-winning actress and star of A.C.T.'s current production of Hecuba, Olympia Dukakis, on November 18. Log on to, the web site of Contra Costa Newspapers and register by 7:45 PM (PST). Registration for the chat will be taken on "cocotalk" on the home page. Questions and comments may be posted. Ms. Dukakis will be on hand from 8:00 until 9:00 to respond.

Online chat participants will be eligible to win pairs of tickets to a performance of Hecuba. To enter, log on to and enter "Hecuba" as the Quickword on the home page. Winners will be drawn at random once a week through November 10.

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