For the Love of ‘Phaedra’
“Phaedra’s Love,” written by Sarah Kane, decimates any expectation the audience might have going in. A workshop directed by graduate student Dennis Beasley and performed in UCI’s Nixon Theater, the play unabashedly tests the boundaries of onstage representation. Even going in to this production with an idea of the writing of Sarah Kane, which has its share of rape, cannibalism and intense violence and/or gore, the show still manages to shock. The second of her works, Kane described “Phaedra’s Love” as her ‘comedy,’ based loosely on the classic drama “Phaedra” by Seneca.
‘Loosely’ is perhaps too vague a term, however. What Seneca presented as the tragedy of a lustful and manipulative queen, Kane makes into a cynical, nihilistic examination of the privileged life of Prince Hippolytus, played by graduate actor Craig Fox. The fat, lazy prince opens the play sitting in an armchair, watching TV. We hear programs like Jerry Springer and news reports of war in the Middle East, framing us in a modern world intrigued by dysfunction and violence. Hippolytus’ subsequent onstage masturbation to what sounds like a nature program certainly informs the audience that this play could go anywhere.
The obsessive desire of Hippolytus’ stepmother Phaedra, played by grad actress Alison Plott, frames well the opposites of excess feeling and emotional numbness. Phaedra, while occasionally too wild to seem real, achieves a perfect level of dejection when her heavily-foreshadowed sexual encounter with her stepson goes terribly wrong. Hippolytus, is then imprisoned for his accused rape of Phaedra, and has a surprisingly philosophical debate with a priest over the nature of God. Unfortunately, the significance of the latter part of this discussion is lost in the rapid pace of the scene, jumping quickly back into the sex and violence.
The one-hour runtime seems to be just right for the intensity of “Phaedra’s Love.” Kane’s style involves fast-paced, condensed dialogue, and rapid onstage actions that are shocking but too brief to force prolonged thought. The show was ably performed by the entire cast, who dived seamlessly into whatever the script confronted them with, be it incest, rape or castration. The set was simple but remarkably complete, simulating anything from a prison cell to a funeral pyre.
Ultimately, as with Sarah Kane’s other plays, the success of the production boils down to the personal values of the viewer. “Phaedra’s Love” can either come as an intrusive, needlessly provocative production, or as a strange insight into human nature and the meaninglessness of violent acts. The actions do seem to escalate abruptly and without cause, but juxtaposed with the TV programs at the play’s start and the mid-play jail cell exchange, the show can become a very lucid examination of life’s bitter truths. Plenty of audience members don’t know whether to laugh, groan, cover their eyes or shout at the kinds of things that they witness, and the show expects just that.
The play is not for everyone, and certainly not for those who avoid shows of violence and intense sexuality. But this aside, it’s an hour of unadulterated, unapologetic severity. The play’s final crescendo of rape, mutilation and murder could only be more vivid with the use of simulated blood. Still, this potentially costly and messy process could just as easily have detracted from the actions themselves as it could have added color. The majority of discrepancies with a show like this arise from Kane’s provocative style, which can feel unsettling or incomplete. However, the production was crisp and solidly performed, doing justice to the show itself, whether or not the audience found meaning in its brutality.