Phaedra's Love
defunkt theatre
Back Door Theater

Phaedra's Love is a modern retelling of Seneca's ancient tragedy about a stepmother, Phaedra (Madeleine Sanford), who decides to seduce her stepson, Hippolytus (James Moore). She announces her intentions after the audience is treated to one of defunkt's marvelous discomforting bouts of silence, in which Hippolytus watches television for at least 10 minutes, wolfs cheeseburgers, and masturbates into a sock. Phaedra interprets this unabashed sloth as challenging. When she enters his space a short time later to bring her goal to fruition, Hippolytus is as confused as the audience. "Why?" he asks when she tells him she loves him. "Because you're difficult," she replies.

Hippolytus may be difficult, but he also has at least a hint of twisted integrity. He refuses Phaedra's love not because he is worried about the fact that she is his father's wife (indeed, the thought barely seems to cross his mind), but because he knows her love for him is based on a lust for conquest, not real emotion. He refuses to be anybody's tally mark. His deceptive awareness and moral strength provide a nice foil to Sanford's oozing, tempting Phaedra, a woman used to getting what she wants. So convincing is Sanford's performance, that it is a shock when Hippolytus "wins" the interaction and reduces her to a pandering mess. The scene between them, played out on Hippolytus' rancid couch, is fascinating; a long, subtle struggle for power with a repellant finish that lingers in the viewer's mind.

The company behind this production, defunkt, has a history of performing plays that feel slightly incomplete. For its last show, company members selected two, early one-acts by Sam Shepard, which felt more like exercises in abstract improvisation than coherent theatrical experiences. Here, the story is concrete, but the telling of it is uneven.

A love triangle between Phaedra, Phaedra's daughter, Strophe (Damali Ayo), and Hippolytus is hinted at, then tossed aside. The relationship between Hippolytus and his father, Theseus (Song Kim), is not even hinted at, even after Phaedra publicly accuses Hippolytus of raping her and then kills herself. After her scene with Hippolytus, Phaedra is never seen again (her death happens offstage), so we don't even get a lick of the great internal struggle that must have waged inside in order to have led her to commit such an act. It's as if Kane was so excited to bring her excessively gory finale to fruition, she forgot to maintain her characters.

A feeling of incompletion also surrounds Kane's modern translation. I'm all for updating classical texts, but the update should have an over-arching vision that keeps it grounded in the specific pre-selected modern context. Phaedra's Love appears to start out in modern times--Hippolytus chills in front of the television--but by the end has returned to what appears to be Ancient Greece. The final scene depicts a time when frantic peasant mobs supported and encouraged public acts of despicable violence, but is so outlandish it becomes hilarious, a trait that I don't think is intentional, and is at the very least, inconsistent with the carefully tuned opening scenes.

The play is ultimately a downward spiral. Intriguing characters drop away; dialogue drops away; and finally, any semblance of a contemporary OR classical setting drops away. The result is a black void of insignificance, with a few interesting image meteors floating through the space.