Phèdre Blows Wide Open

A feminist take of the French play based on the Greek myth set in the ’50s deals with lust, shame, jealousy — and a woman’s place.

Courtney Walsh particularly likes stories about women trying to figure out how to behave in the world — what voice in their head to listen to, who should decide their standard of behavior.

So being in the Cutting Ball Theater’s Phèdre, where she plays the title role in Jean Racine’s take on the Greek myth, as a model mother and devoted wife who develops an overwhelming attraction to her stepson, was particularly rich for Walsh. In the story she plays a character who goes through shame and grief and rage and rejection and jealousy.

“There’s so much,” Walsh says. “And it’s so compressed — the story happens in less than a day.”

Walsh, who studied acting at Yale University and now teaches it at Stanford University, says you might think a Greek tragedy with deceit and hidden desires and a once noble family destroyed could be hard to watch. Instead, she calls Cutting Ball co-founder Rob Melrose’s translation fresh and fun. The play was written in a neoclassical style of French with six beats per line (and often staged more as a recitation than a play). But that doesn’t really work in English, and Walsh says Melrose has retained the beautiful language and imagery of the play while making it active.

“We’re not constrained with the text — it’s blown wide open,” she said. “It’s a mashup of time periods and it’s very funny in a lot of parts. There’s the recognition of that human situation of revealing your love to someone who is not interested in you. It’s a fun show to watch.”

Courtney Walsh as Phèdre (Liz Olsen)

Walsh also credits Ariel Craft, the director, for the show’s appeal.

“I love what Ariel’s doing,” she says. “It’s such an intelligent approach with a feminist angle. It’s set in the ’50s, but with swords and chariots. It really makes sense because the silhouettes of the ’50s are so evocative for an audience and really conjure an idea of how women should look and behave.”

Walsh, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and four children, has been working steadily — recently appearing in Seared at the SF Playhouse and in Native Son at the Marin Theatre Company. She had a whole other career as well. After Yale, she came out to Los Angeles to act, volunteered at a center for abused infants and toddlers, and wanting to do more, went to law school to get a degree so she could advocate for children.

Walsh, who liked using her acting skills when she went to trial, eventually left the emotional demands of her legal work to raise her own children. After not acting for about 15 years, she got offered a role about 11 years ago, and she has been working in the theater since. Going back to it with some life experience has made a huge difference, she says.

“It’s so much more fun,” she said. “Being an actor doesn’t define me as so much. In your 20s, it’s all about, ‘Oh, what does it mean that I didn’t get that part?’ Everything is about your self-image. Now, I’m much braver in the roles I take.”

Phèdre, Cutting Ball Theater, The EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., through May 2, $15-$45, 415-525-1205 or

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