Do It Live Productions gives us ‘Phaedra’s Love’: young, gifted and whack

(Charles Kruger)

Rating: 4/5 » Highly Recommended

Sarah Kane, author of “Phaedra’s Love”, was a leading practitioner of “in-yer-face” theatre. That is a style of  theatre, prominent in the 1990’s, which intentionally tries to be vulgar, shocking, obscene, even disgusting. Practitioners want strong audience reactions.

Do It Live‘s production meets all these criteria. In fact, this reviewer was shaken seriously enough to consider walking out early in the performance. But the decision to stick around was well rewarded.

The tragedy of Phaedra involves the horrific aftermath which follows when the titular Queen falls in love with her stepson, Hyppolytus, while her husband is off fighting a war.

Michael Zavala as Hippolytas and Whitney Thomas as Phaedra in Do It Live’s Production of Sarah Kane’s “Phaedra’s Love”. Photo credit: Gabby Batista.

In Kane’s version, the family is a modern one, and Hyppolytus is one strange, cruel, sadistic and surprisingly sexy dude, played to comical excess by gifted actor Michael Zavala. Depressed, stuffing himself with junk food, addicted to video games, sloppy and crude, the adolescent prince is disgusted by the fauning attention of his subjects. Both women and men are too easily conquered and he loves ’em and leaves ’em (including his stepsister) with sadistic abandon. His sexual presence (helped by his princely status) is so intense that even his flabby paunch, poor hygiene and rude demeanor can’t drive off his suitors, among them his stepmother. He is clearly a young man of astonishing sensitivity and appeal, driven nearly to madness by his disgust with the world. His sadistic emotional cruelty is shocking yet understandable. Hyppolytus is a complex character.  Zavala’s performance is sexy, unsettling, charismatic and very funny as well.  Zavala is still an undergraduate at San Francisco State where, rumor has it, he has made quite an impression. This is not surprising. Expect great things.

After a brutally indifferent encounter with stepmother Phaedra (skillfully portrayed by Whitney Thomas), Hyppolytus is dismayed to find that she still professes her love. In desperation, he tells her, “Well, see a doctor then.” She thinks he means she needs counseling but he explains, “I have gonnorhea.” When she doesn’t react with horror, he desperately pleads, “Now do you hate me?” The scene is as revolting and sad as it sounds, but at the same time plays as comedy because it is so over-the-top. The performances successfully ride a razor’s edge.

By night’s end, the audience has witnessed rape, a riot, castration, disembowelment and death, laughing all the way. The production combines the convincing violent realism of Grand Guignol with the outrageousness of the Theatre of the Ridiculous. It is “in-yer-face” all the way.

In the end, the catharsis is authentic, more so than you are likely to find in any number of staid revivals of Shakespearean tragedy.

The staging, fight choreography and special effects are effective throughout, the acting is skilled and the design elements are well-realized.

I was astonished to learn that this impressive production is Ben Landmesser’s directorial debut. Producers, take note!

If you consider yourself to be the proverbial “adventurous theatregoer”, you will not want to miss “Phaedra’s Love” (which playwright Sarah Kane always referred to wryly as “my comedy”). But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

“Phaedra’s Love” continues at Bindlestiff Studios through November 17th. For further information, click here.

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“Phaedra’s Love” by Sarah Kane, produced by Do It Live Productions. Director: Ben Landmesser. Scenic Design: Jessica Chaffin. Sound Design: Hannah Birch Carl. Costume Design: Liz Weston. Lighting Design: Joe D’Emilio. 

Hippolytus: Michael Zavala. Phaedra: Whitney Thomas. Doctor: Sam Richie. Priest: Nick Medina. Theseus: Aaron Teixeria. Strophe: April Fritz..

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