Sunday, August 30, 2009

Review - Phaedra's Love - Red Letter Theater - 3-1/2 stars

“If only there’d been more moments like this...”

An Open Letter to Select Fellow Audience Members...

Dear Viewers of Phaedra’s Love,

You were warned.

First of all, the script is based (loosely) on the legend of Phaedra and Hippolytus. Her name’s in the title. It’s a legend where a woman is in love with her stepson. Granted, in most of the source material nothing ever happens between them. He’s a grown man. They’re not related by blood. It’s only technically incestuous. But it’s a story about incest.

Secondly, the script is by Sarah Kane. This playwright had a history of mental illness, depression in particular, and ended up hanging herself - while in a hospital to get treatment. (It’s all right there in your program.) What kind of a play do you think a person with that going on in their brain is going to write? Incest, bleak world view, doesn’t exactly promise a garden of posies and hand-holding now does it?

Third, they actually made an announcement over the loudspeaker in the theater when the house opened that there would be adult content. A verbal warning. At the Bryant Lake Bowl. Seriously?

During the course of the 75 minutes, someone is raped (from behind) and has their throat slit, two people commit suicide, someone has their genitalia cut off, and one person is disemboweled (and takes forever to finally die).

But what really bothered you, apparently, were the blow jobs.

Simulated blow jobs.

At no point do we actually see a human penis, mind you. (Or a butt, or even a breast.)

The masturbation (into a sock) at the top of the show didn’t trouble you any.

But the blow jobs, well, that required you to get up and leave the theater.

Which actually would have been fine.

If you hadn’t come back five minutes later.


Granted, neither of the blow jobs in question seemed like they were particularly pleasant for either of the parties involved.

And the second one seemed pretty gratuitous.

Which means (hilariously) that I must have perceived the first one to actually be germane to the plot.

But no one is particularly impressed with your righteous indignation, especially since it seems to be so incredibly short-lived.

“Well, I really can’t watch a fake blow job, but I have to see the rest of the play.”


Perhaps it was just your bladder calling you to the restroom, but the timing was fairly obvious.

Nothing - and I mean this, nothing on that stage was shocking.

Unless you’ve had your head up your own ass for the last ten years.

Between cable TV and the internet, Sarah Kane’s once incendiary taboo-smashing seems almost quaint.

So, if you know what you’re getting into, and even if you don’t, you’re not at home watching TV. If you’ll pardon the expression, suck it up, sit still, and watch the play. The rest of the audience can see you. The actors can see you. But you’re sitting in the dark. We all signed on for the same experience. Nobody cares if you’re offended. And nobody wants to watch you act out your own personal psychodrama.

Your behavior offended me far more than anything I saw on that stage the other night. Disrespect for artists and fellow audience members tends to rile me.

You were warned.
Get over yourself.

Oh. PS -

Blow me.

Now that I have that out of my system, how was the show?

Pretty damn good. The failings, I think, were more the fault of the script than the acting or directing. This was a well-executed showcase with which to launch a new theater company. Red Letter Theater couldn’t ask for a better calling card. Edgy script, regional premiere by name playwright, experienced (and in some cases also well-known) cast, sharp design - all very positive elements to have in the mix.

Heather Stone, fresh off her great work in the Fringe Festival as the title character in Sandbox Theatre’s “June of Arc,” here again plays the hapless title role in the festivities. Her Phaedra is wound pretty tight, and her impending undoing hangs like a cloud over the story at all times. Taking your eyes off her is almost impossible.

Jonathan Peterson does a fine three-part turn - first as the royal doctor, clinical and helpless; next as a well-meaning priest making a jail visitation (warning - gratuitous blow job alert); finally as the bereft and dangerously angry Theseus - home from abroad to find his wife dead and his son accused of having a large role in her fate. Peterson goes from supporting player to primal force at astonishing speed. He becomes the merciless hand of justice, and in this case justice is extremely blind, and deadly.

Nicholas Leeman has an uphill battle with the character of Hippolytus, since the playwright appears to be daring us to hate him (and the play) from the time the curtain opens. Hippolytus is slovenly, selfish, and uncaring of others’ feelings. He says and does awful things without a hint of remorse, often without even realizing their impact. Leeman’s character also got the lion’s share of the lines that had the audience gasping in disbelief, and the actor took full advantage of the ammunition he was given. The strange thing is that Leeman has the charisma that Hippolytus needs for us to buy that everyone’s so obsessed with him, but it’s almost as if he wasn’t allowed to use it. The performance is purposely tamped down, deadened, flattened out. Great for conveying ennui, not great for presenting an object of irrational desire. There are a couple of moments of genuine tenderness toward the very end when you almost like the guy (almost), but the vast majority of the time, compassion is not part of his makeup.

Here’s where it all kind of starts to come unglued - these characters are, at their most basic, just fundamentally annoying. They are people of means, of power, of leisure. It is only because they hold a lofty station in society that they have the luxury of becoming bored, oversexed, and obsessed. Boo-f*ckin’-hoo. Kane took these characters and made them human, but she also made them assholes. Poor Strophe (Larissa Shea) has the dubious honor of being the voice of reason for both her mother and stepbrother and everything she says is perfectly correct. She sees these people from the outside, and points out their absurdity. But she also leaves us no one to root for. This is where I think the script fails the actors and director. I don’t get the feeling they didn’t dig deeply enough, I just don’t think there’s any deeper to dig in this text. There is nothing noble about animals in heat, and that’s essentially what we’ve got here. It’s all instinct, no filters. People do colossally stupid things, and pay for it. But there’s no catharsis. These people aren’t falling from a great height. They’re already down in the gutter. They just poke their heads up for a moment and have them squashed back down again. They just have better clothes.

Speaking of better clothes, the design of “Phaedra’s Love” is great. The look of the production - set, props and costumes - is very sharp. When that red curtain first opens, Phaedra and Strophe are in black, head to toe, including their hair. The doctor and nurse, and all the set pieces (table, chairs, wheelchair, coat rack) are bright white. Hippolytus is in blue medical scrubs. There are red accents here and there, including a remote controlled toy car that has its own obscene cameo performance. Director David Hanzal concocted a vivid piece of design, which Megan Wannarka’s costumes and David Pipho’s wigs helped flesh out in a major way. It would be tempting to take short-cuts on the visuals when the words and acting are so central, but Red Letter wisely avoided that trap, giving the production a whole other layer of professionalism.

Not being acquainted with the script beforehand, it’s hard to tell whether the ending was a production choice or actually scripted the way it transpired. The reason I found myself questioning this is because of the way the production started. The play opens in silence, for several minutes, and nothing is explained to us. All the central characters and issues of the play, however, are made clear. Because there are no lines of dialogue, the audience is forced to watch closely, and make up their own minds who these people are and what’s going on. Because the physical language of the actors, and the visual language of the design are so clear and specific, we know what world we’re entering. It’s intense, and immediately draws the audience in.

Contrasting this silent opening, the end in this production is narrated by Phaedra (or rather, her spirit). But I had the nagging feeling that these were stage directions (very engaging stage directions, but stage directions nonetheless) being read to us, rather than actual lines. This wasn’t because of the performance. Stone gives us an anchor in the middle of the play’s final minutes of chaos by threading it all together with her voice. However, all the events of the end of the play, though chaotic, were clear without this narration. This again was partly due to acting, partly due to design. All the characters were clear from the way they were performed. Additionally, the costumes reinforced who was who - despite the fact that two of the actors were characters in disguise. The audience could tell who they were underneath. Again, we didn’t need the explanation. Even Phaedra could still appear, silently, and have her moment of reconciliation with Hippolytus, without the benefit of lines. Kane’s script, up until that sequence, never seemed to feel the need to explain itself or offer any kind of omniscient perspective, so I’m not sure I buy that she suddenly changed her writing tactics because she was worried it would be too hard for the audience to follow. Kane seems to demand that her audience pay attention and keep up. She doesn’t disregard the audience, but she gives them credit for a lot more than most scripts would. Because of that aesthetic on the part of the author, here it felt like instead it was the production which wasn’t trusting us to keep up and follow along. Whether it was indeed the script or the production’s choice, it felt strange to suddenly layer on that tissue of words over top of the action that late in the game. But there’s a lot of strange (good, bad, and indifferent) going on in “Phaedra’s Love,” so it’s probably a wash.

Phaedra’s Love” was a one-weekend only affair, ending Sunday, August 30th at 7pm at the Bryant Lake Bowl. But after seeing this, I’m very interested to see what Red Letter Theater is up to next.


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