Euripedes’ “Hippolytus,” written in 428 B.C., opens with an oration by Aphrodite on the mortal obligation to honor and worship each member of the Pantheon. British playwright Sarah Kane’s “Phaedra’s Love,” written in 2000 A.D., opens with a BVD-clad Hippolytus ensconced in a divan of half-empty Doritos Nacho Cheesier bags, searching for a dirty sock into which he may discharge the product of his listless masturbation. The dim flickering of stage lamps on Hippolytus’ face, representing the glow of an imaginary television, provides the lighting. Hippolytus provides the opening lines. They are orgasmic grunts.
Indeed, “Phaedra’s Love” is a decidedly modern recreation of Euripedes’ ancient tale of love and tragedy. In the original version, Phaedra burns with love for her step-son, Hippolytus, while her husband, Theseus, is out of the country waging war. She propositions Hippolytus, and out of moral qualms with incest, fear of genetic mishaps, or an inexplicable lack of curiosity about what his father’s been missing while he’s been away, Hippolytus refuses. Devastated by the rejection, Phaedra kills herself. The mortals’ actions are steered by the divine interventions of Aphrodite, and the play packs a moral wallop by illustrating the dangers of neglecting to worship the gods. It is a cautionary tale.
In the contemporary version, Kane may be cautioning her viewers to avoid a certain transgression at whatever the cost, but that transgression is never revealed. Despite this obstacle, director Kara-Lynn Vaeni cleverly ties the play together with colorful interspersions of Hippolytus receiving fellatio. An avowed sexual deviant, and a playboy — albeit stay-at-home — Hippolytus spends most of his stage time spewing baubles of schlocky nihilism, or receiving sexual gratification. At one point, the audience is treated to a tableau of Hippolytus in flagrante with a priest. After Hippolytus has falsely confessed to raping Phaedra (a detail she had concocted and included in a suicide note), a priest visits him. The priest tries to make Hippolytus repent for his sins, accept God, and maybe ditch the lame, gonorrheic lifestyle. He mocks the priest and laughs in his face, blaspheming mercilessly along the way. Apparently Hippolytus’ cruelty, five o’clock shadow, and ripped wife-beater combo have an unexpected cachet. Soon the priest has removed Hippolytus’ ripped jeans and begins his tearful duty. A new notch in Hippolytus’ unfastened belt: oral appreciation of the lingam by a man of the cloth.
At this point, it becomes difficult to suspend one’s disbelief. Repeated use of oral sex as a means of transition, predicatable plot subtleties, and a catalog of British-isms, such as “Don’t get stroppy, Strophe,” make the show difficult to take seriously — especially while giggling after Hippolytus called Theseus a wanker.
The technical aspects of the play were outstanding. The dimness of the lighting sets appropriate tones of desperation and destruction. The music was well-selected; insertion of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” was especially apt for the mood at the finale. The props were effective — I flinched every time an actor casually brandished what looked like an overambitious X-acto.
More importantly, the acting was top-notch. Ryan King played an excellent Hippolytus, and he was well-supported by Jennifer Lim as an impassioned Phaedra and Anita Gandhi as an addled Strophe. Was the play some colossal ironic statement about the evolution of humanity and how the Western Canon hadn’t keep up? It was hard for me to watch such talented people engage in what I considered to be acts of gratuitous shock value.
Even in excess, dramatized sex can be effective. For example, “Y Tu Mama, Tambien” was graphic, yet poignant. But when there’s no ostensible purpose behind the employment of shocking images, no thoughtful but accessible message behind the garishness, the shock value is lost. Things go from jarring to banal. At that point, art’s impact is lost.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”1201″ ]