Most directors go into their next show with a sense of excitement, the thrill of a new show in its earliest stages of life. However, before Leda Hoffmann began putting together and planning her staging of divisive British playwright Sarah Kane’s "Phaedra’s Love" – a modern retelling of the classic Greek tale – for The World’s Stage Theatre Company, opening this weekend, the theater director felt one thing in particular.
"It’s raw, and so it’s emotionally risky, and it also has some really impossible stage directions," Hoffmann said. "In the Greek and Roman tellings of this story, the violence happens off-stage. Sarah Kane is putting the violence and sex on stage. It’s a play I was terrified to work on."
Even back to its Greek origins, the story – about a woman who falls in love with her disgusting, slovenly step-son and the horrific consequences of her illicit attraction – is filled with sex, violence and cruelty. Then in 1996, after Kane – just coming off her controversial debut play "Blasted," which critics originally called disgusting and filth – got her hands on the myth, the tale of Phaedra became even more shocking, aggressive and in-your-face.
"She’d say they’re real life," Hoffmann said. "One of the things she said is how come, when people are being raped and murdered all over the world every day and it’s in the news … but it’s just news, right? We just move on with our lives. But when it happens on stage, and everyone freaks out about it."
Critical opinion on Kane has swung drastically in the other direction since the playwright’s first dramatic entrance into the theater scene. Many, like Harold Pinter, came out in her support, and now many of her works are even taught and studied in theater schools.
However, the playwright – who tragically committed suicide in 1999 – and her audacious material has never truly hit a Milwaukee stage yet. Acting interns at the Milwakee Rep did a live reading once, but according to Hoffmann, this is the first full production of a Kane script. And at first, she wasn’t sure if she should be the one to do it.
"Deciding whether or not to do the play, I asked a bunch of people that I trusted if I should do it," Hoffmann said. "People I worked with at the Rep and all over said, ‘Oh, a Sarah Kane play? Yes!’ The only reason I had to say no was, ‘I’m scared,’ but that wasn’t a good reason."
She eventually said yes to "Phaedra’s Love," and shortly after, the script began to speak to her.
"I’m not a sex and violence on stage kind of person, but I love her language," Hoffmann said. "It was really the language that I fell in love with at first. I love the words she uses. They’re so succinct, but they’re so incredibly truthful about who we are as human beings. I remember the first time going through auditions, hearing people read it out loud and the language coming to life that way, I was like, ‘Now I’m sold. This was a good idea.’"
Since then, Hoffmann and her cast and crew have spent the last several months rehearsing, prepping and piecing together the show, finding the right balance for the often tense, high-strung emotions. They’ve worked on making sure the emotions ring out through the graphic content, while also staying appropriately scaled to the size of their intimate stage – built essentially from scratch in an empty storefront in Grand Avenue Mall, right in between TJ Maxx and the main doors.
"No one is more than four rows away from the action on stage, which is right for a Sarah Kane play," Hoffmann said. "She’s saying, ‘Look. Wake up. Everyone look at this. Here it is.’"
It’s a tough balance to strike, even more so while working with a cast that she’s never worked with before and vice versa. However, Hoffmann noted that she, the cast and the crew (including one person given the duties of "violence designer") planned and worked hard to make sure everyone was comfortable and knew why their characters were doing what they were doing.
"It was a big challenge for me as a director to try to figure out the right amount of theatricality versus realism," Hoffmann admitted. "When these people are feeling these extremes of human emotions, how do we play them in a way that makes an audience member watch it and go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve felt like that.’ We all get unrequited love and really complicated parent-child relationships. We all get that, but these people are at the extreme of how those feel."
Though the final results don’t hit the stage until Friday night, for Hoffmann, it’s already been the most rewarding experience of her theater career so far.
"Because it’s not a play I think would’ve picked on my own, it’s pushed me in ways that I haven’t been before," Hoffmann said. "The four actors at the core at the beginning of the play, I’ve worked with none of them, so just getting to know them has been great, and we’re creating these really special performances."
I mean, Phil Sletteland is playing Hippolytus, who in this version of the play is depressed and sits on the couch all day and watches television and eats and has sex. And watching Phil transform into that character – and all of them take on these roles – has been great. And we’ve had some really tough discussions to get there."
Hoffmann’s very aware the material will be remarkably challenging for many audiences, but she hopes "Phaedra’s Love" will be just as rewarding for them – and, in the end, for Milwaukee’s theater scene as a whole.
"This is a play you normally only get to see in big cities. So I sort of feel like the more I learn about (Sarah Kane), the more I feel we have a responsibility to bring this to Milwaukee so people can see this here. We’re making sure the theater in this town isn’t always safe and that it’s pushing boundaries."
For more information about showtimes and tickets, visit the show's website.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.