So, let’s see where we should begin talking about "Phaedra’s Love," the shocking play by British playwright Sarah Kane, which the World Stage Theatre Company opened Friday night at an empty store space at Grand Avenue Mall.
Let’s start with the fact that Kane, who committed suicide in 1999 at 28, killed herself in a hospital where she was being treated for depression. She was then, and even still now, regarded as "L’enfant terrible" of the world of British theater. She wrote this play as a modern reworking of Seneca's ancient story "Phaedra."
So, we’ve got that out of the way. Next let’s look at the seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy and pride. This play has six of the seven, with envy somehow getting a pass.
But it’s not just those sins that make up the play. We also have incest, oral sex, rape, masturbation, mutilation, mob violence, suicide (twice) and even a little bit of masochism. We also hear almost every swear word on the list of things you shouldn’t say in mixed company.
Sounds like your basic Friday night at the theater, huh?
This is the story of Phaedra, the second wife of Theseus. Strophe is her daughter, a princess; Hippolytus is his son, a prince.
Phaedra is in love with her stepson, who is a lazy sloth for whom the only joys seem to be television, food, masturbation and a remote controlled truck. Strophe warns her mother not to get involved with her stepson, and she knows whereof she speaks, since she also had sex with him. She also had sex with her stepfather.
Phaedra finally hooks up with Hippolytus with a scene of simulated (I’m sure) oral sex. Afterward, he tells her that he doesn’t love her at all and that her husband slept with her daughter on their wedding night. Distressed, Phaedra kills herself, leaving a note that claims Hippolytus raped her. He leaves the palace and finds a place with a priest who ends up giving oral sex (simulated, I’m also sure) to Hippolytus.
We then move to the final scene where a mob is urged on by Theseus to kill Hippolytus to punish him for the rape. While they kill him and debowel him in sickening graphic detail, Theseus rapes the daughter, then kills her before killing himself.
And, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off back home we go.
"Phaedra's Love" is supposed to reflect Kane’s bleak view of humanity, royalty and just about everything else. Director Leda Hoffmann jumped into this thing with both feet and staged a play that was bound to shock with a core of good actors.
Let me be clear here: I don’t mind shock. I don’t mind graphic sex and language in the world of theatre. But toward the end of this play, when fake bowels were being pulled from a character's body, I found myself almost laughing out loud.
Somewhere in this play I’m sure that a crowd more artsy than I can find some deep meaning and some scathing commentary on the world. For me, however, whatever that meaning was got buried under the gratuitous sex and violence. I guess it was shocking. But at the end it seemed like all of the shock did nothing but prevent the cast from looking deeper for some kind of real meaning.
The thing about shock is that you can’t let it become THE thing about the play. It can be a thing, but not the only thing. And in "Phaedra's Love," the shock is all we are left with and at the end, the shock isn’t even all that shocking.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
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