Sarah Kane

A Royal Pain

Review of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cab Co-Artistic Directors Jesse Rasmussen and Elizabeth Dinkova seem to have a thing for sensationalist modern reworkings of classical sources. In last year’s Cab season, Dinkova directed Rasmussen, among others, in Boris Yeltsin, Mickaël de Oliveira’s Portuguese revamp of Agamemnon, featuring a bored latter-day aristocracy ripe for overthrow; now Rasmussen directs, with Dinkova on hand in a small but important role, Sarah Kane’s slash-and-burn satire on royalty, class, faith, and, mostly, sex, Phaedra’s Love. In both, a mother figure is rather unhealthily concerned with her grown son’s or stepson’s sexuality. In Boris Yeltsin, the infatuation stops short of sexual contact. Not so in Phaedra’s Love.

Phaedra, whether at the hands of Euripides, Seneca, Racine, or Kane, is a woman driven to distraction by her lust for Hippolytus, only son of her husband, King Theseus. Her pursuit of Hippolytus generally leads to her being rejected by him and to the accusation that he raped her, which generally brings about his death through the outrage of Theseus, providentially returned from his mission to the underworld. With larger-than-life heroic figures involved, it’s hard to say where the moral force of the story should be, but the situation of a queenly woman doing bad things for love makes the tale a popular one to revisit. To say nothing of the older woman/younger man mythos.

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann)

Kane’s Phaedra features a certain manic comic flair which, in Rasmussen’s rendering, mostly seethes below the surface. The Summer Cab version feels more tragic than one might expect, in part because camp, which could be a key factor in a contemporary tale this lurid, is relegated to a few minor touches. That leaves us with the indelible power of the key performances from Niall Powderly as Hippolytus and Elizabeth Stahlmann as Phaedra. The work they do is sizzling.

Powderly delivers Hippolytus, a masturbating, TV-watching, toy-car manipulating schlub in a tub, as every bit a tragic hero worthy of Shakespeare. Hippolytus is repulsively slovenly, but his detachment—from man, God, and woman—becomes at last a matter of moral heroism. It’s possible to see him that way when he accepts, scapegoat fashion, the charge of the rape and his grisly fate at the hands of a blood-thirsty populace, remarking “If there could have been more moments like this.” It’s a wonderful last line and feeds back into the play’s notion—which is what makes Hippolytus and Phaedra, oddly, soul mates—that living means feeling something unexpected, even out-of-bounds. No guts, no glory—which might mean, as here, pretty gory glory. With dead bodies enough to satisfy Shakespearean tragedy.

Kane is rather unsparing of Phaedra, a woman who forces herself upon her stepson and then feels outraged by her treatment at his coldly indifferent hands. Stahlmann, who I’ve seen in a variety of roles in her time at YSD, is revelatory, again. Here, her look speaks volumes as she walks the tightrope of Kane’s truncated lines. Phaedra is a stylish, self-possessed woman gradually becoming a basket-case, and her sense of her own worth is what she seems most eager to dispense with. Some might call her position masochistic, but that would be too extreme for a role that, one senses, we’re meant to see as endemic to the part sexuality reserves for women.

Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

Phaedra (Elizabeth Stahlmann), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

If we doubt that, we’ve only to look at Phaedra’s daughter, Strophe (Brontë England-Nelson, who wins the trifecta for performances this summer with another impressive turn in her third play of the season). Strophe initially seems to be more firmly wrapped than Phaedra until we realize the extent to which she is already wounded. A key reason to see this play is to see the excellent actors on hand—which includes Paul Cooper as a bemused doctor, a pondering priest, and a rather bloodless Theseus.

Kane is a shrewd playwright who knows how comic the bathetic can be, which means that the emotional hi-jinx on display make it seem risky to laugh, or it might even hurt to laugh, and that’s the point. Her heroines are serving themselves up on a spit, but that’s nothing to what their disaffected object of desire will get up to. Attentive viewers will catch the chuckle of naming Phaedra’s daughter Strophe and will notice how things shift to “Antistrophe” and “Catastrophe” as the play moves on—suffice to say, the shift is structured by certain oral acts, the last from a source that might be unexpected enough to satisfy even Hippolytus. Our hero, after all, mainly identifies himself with his guts and his cock, so we can say his end has all kinds of poetic justice.

And what about his mind? Kane gives Hippolytus a skeptic’s jailhouse colloquy with a priest that lets him vent about a life with no beliefs, and he cleverly turns the notion of forgiveness on its head, so that even the priest must concede the clarity of his moral code. That’s when we begin to see that Hippolytus isn’t simply sickened by being royal or by his dysfunctional family or by the depths those who desire him are willing to stoop to, but that, for him, there’s a needling fear of pointlessness forever in sight. And Powderly’s unflinching stare, with all this actor’s froideur and finesse, keeps that big empty elephant in the room, so to speak. Which, come to think of it, may be what makes him so irresistible to his step-mom. She wants to see him feel something. Too bad she’s not there for the end.

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

Hippolytus (Niall Powderly), Strophe (Bronte England-Nelson)

At a bit over an hour in length, Phaedra’s Love is the quickest of the shows this summer, and the scenes between Hippolytus and Phaedra are over too soon. The look of Phaedra and Strophe as high-toned dames is ably caught by killer dresses and accessories by Sarah Woodham, while the cobweb behind the lurid red curtain, the psychotic graphic swirls adorning walls, and that tub in baleful light center stage  combine for the feel of funhouse horror that Fufan Zhang’s set and Andrew F. Griffin’s lighting conjures, much as Christopher Ross-Ewart’s soundstage of music and transmissions does, all vaguely unsettling.

Long ago, Villiers de L'isle Adam summed up the jaded aristocrat’s view with the line, “Living? Our servants can do that for us.” In Phaedra’s Love, the aristocracy are seen living out a kind of trailer trash version of a life even their servants might despise. And yet, for all the leveling of our crassly democratic age, it’s still rather cathartic to wallow with our betters in their gilded cesspool. And nothing makes that happen like theater. The Summer Cabaret ends its 2016 season with one fucked-up royal family hoist with its own petard.

 

Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer and Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Set Designer: Fufan Zhang; Production Dramaturg: David Bruin; Movement and Violence Consultant: Emily Lutin; Production Manager/Technical Director: Alix Reynolds; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Cast: Paul Cooper; Brontë England-Nelson; Niall Powderly; Elizabeth Stahlmann; Ensemble: Elizabeth Dinkova; Sean Boyce Johnson; Kevin Hourigan

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016

Raising Kane

Preview of Phaedra’s Love, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret prepares to open its final show of the 2016 season, this Thursday. Co-artistic Jesse Rasmussen, who opened the season with a highly physical adaptation of Alice in Wonderland in June, will close out the season directing renowned playwright Sarah Kane’s “brutal comedy,” Phaedra's Love.

Kane’s plays are known for their uncompromising approach to a world in which humanity is prone to violence and, in her more reflective works, suffers from the anxieties of its condition. The “darker facets” of theater attract Rasmussen, who feels Phaedra's Love is a suitable follow-up to Alice, where “the gently dark elements invited” the “playfulness”—with an edge of psychosis—that marked the Summer Cab’s opener. Rasmussen, who will direct the Jacobean tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis project next spring, says “an interest in violence”  links modern writers like Kane and Edward Bond, whose work she also considered as a summer project, with the Jacobean sense of the dramatic use of extreme violence on stage.

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

 

Asked why violence should be a necessary element of the plays she directs, Rasmussen said “turn on the news,” and spoke eloquently about how it’s “irresponsible to not connect” theater to the stories of random violence and assault that have made 2016 so stressful. Rasmussen, whose background includes extensive avant-garde work with Four Larks, a theater group that “creates contemporary performance at the intersection of theatre, music, visual art, and dance,” is drawn to work that takes chances and creates a unique theatrical experience.

That said, Kane—whose most divisive work was Blasted—called Phaedra's Love “my comedy,” and, indeed, Rasmussen says, it is the playwright’s most accessible and classical work, having been commissioned as a reworking of Seneca’s Phaedra. So there are familiar elements right off—first, “an intimate family drama that eventually explodes,” and the Greek "myth Kane is riffing on.”  The myth concerns the story of how a curse on Phaedra, wife of King Theseus and step-mother to Hippolytus, causes her to lust after her step-son, bringing about his death and, in some versions, her own suicide. What Kane brings to this situation, in a play originally staged in the 1990s, is her “deep repulsion” at her countrymen’s obsession which the British royal family which, at the time, included Princess Diana.

Part of the challenge Rasmussen sees is in rendering the play’s corrosive sense of monarchy “in a way that will be legible here” in the U.S. Certainly, celebrity worship and what Rasmussen calls “the sort of useless leaders paid to be photographed” are not unfamiliar to us, nor is the gap between rich and poor that, if bad enough in the ‘90s, is likely worse now. What’s more, the recent fulminations for Brexit by those who demand a more insular Britain should give Kane’s attack on privileged crassness plenty of bite.

Rasmussen sees the play as “formally exciting,” in part because the violence, which happens offstage in the Greek play, is “in our faces” in Kane’s version, since the playwright’s aesthetic intent is to make the audience “witnesses to violence.” Thus, another challenge of the play is the logistics of staging violence. Rasmussen and her team have had many conversations about violence and witnessing as aspects of the play, which, Rasmussen says “pulls no punches.” Beginning with “the internal domestic space” of this particular family, Kane includes the populace, so that there is an enlarged sense of representation in the play’s conclusion. As Rasmussen says, “there are lots of ways blood can come out on stage,” and part of the task she has undertaken is “do violence well and real” within the limited, and extremely intimate, Yale Cabaret space. To that end, Rasmussen is again working with choreographer Emily Lutin, who she worked with on her studio project, Macbeth, to incorporate with precision and sensitivity the physical process of violence her cast will enact.

The play’s formal challenges are supported by Kane’s poetic use of language. For Rasmussen, the playwright is “a master of economy” who uses truncated syntax to “cut the fat” from dialogue, which makes her play rich and exciting for actors. Kane’s style, Rasmussen has found, promotes attention to detail so that the difference in pause between a comma and a period can be highly expressive. The play’s protagonist, Hippolytus “is a horrible person,” but ends up being “the most honest.” Played by Niall Powderly—who played the title role in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus last summer—Hippolytus, in the director’s view, emerges as the “moral compass of the play, unexpectedly.”

In fact, one reason Rasmussen picked this play over others was because she likes “plays with some type of love story” in them. She found herself fascinated by Phaedra: “how could this woman be in the horrifying position” of such inappropriate desire? Phaedra, played by Elizabeth Stahlmann, who played the title role in Sarah Ruhl’s Orlando last summer, harbors a love for her stepson that makes her “lead with her loins.” “Stepmothers aren’t generally liked” in literature, Rasmussen points out, and so the notion of Phaedra as a sympathetic character may well have been what drew Kane to the myth. Our culture is “still terrified at the idea of a transgressive woman,” so that Phaedra’s sexuality, for Rasmussen, can be seen as heroic in its honesty, and “a transforming element” that “lights a fire that burns down the palace, so to speak.” Theseus, played by Paul Cooper, who played the White Knight and White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, is the proverbial absentee husband, setting up a situation where Phaedra decides she “won’t deny herself and live quietly.”

phaedra poster.jpg

The play, considered Kane’s wittiest, benefits from the detachment that mythic characters possess for contemporary audiences, even if tellingly modernized. And it’s no accident that Rasmussen’s three principles—Powderly, Stahlmann and Cooper—are the three actors who worked with her in David Harrower’s poetic and unsettling play of triangular passion, Knives in Hens, in the Cabaret last fall. “I would only work on this play with actors who I’ve worked with and who I know trust me,” Rasmussen says, “before essentially pushing them off a cliff.”

It’s been a season of sin at the Yale Summer Cabaret, and—after sloth, gluttony, greed, wrath and envy, it’s time for lust—able, here, to “mutine in a matron’s bones,” to borrow Hamlet’s line—to inspire what may be the most challenging play of the four presented this summer. While not a large ensemble of many parts, Phaedra's Love will challenge in a different way: most of the scenes are “two-handers” so that we will be spending time with characters who develop over the course of the evening through specific dramatic pairings.

Sex, violence . . . lust, murder . . . a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional society. And, yes, laughs.

 

Phaedra’s Love
By Sarah Kane
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Yale Summer Cabaret
August 4-14, 2016

A Victim of Voices

The most recent Yale Cabaret production, Sarah Kane’s Crave, directed by playwright Hansol Jung, is staged as a kind of dark night of the soul of a writer. Sitting at a table with sheaves of paper, M (Helen Jaksch) interacts at first with disembodied voices that seem external but also possibly internal. Soon, the voices take shape as three distinct interlocutors—A (Taylor Barfield), B (David Clauson), and C (Ashley Chang). The trio come at M from all directions, bursting through screens, leaping out from behind curtains, popping up from a big plastic trash can. Their mixture of memory, poetry, confrontation, and exhibition drives the show.

At times there is argument and contestation among the voices, at times there are moments of tenderness or hilarity, and seductive arias and impassioned pleas. It’s a very vocal show but unlike the Cab's recent Radio Hour—another show driven by voices—Crave is anything but static as the four characters move all about the playing space as though the audience just happens to be sitting in their personal playground.

The tech of the show is superlative as lights (Elizabeth Mak) and sounds (Cahyae Ryu) have to create much of the atmosphere—an atmosphere that is nothing if not mercurial. And because the set is a part of our space, and vice versa, the set design (Samantha Lazar and Andrew Freeburg)—like that deconstructable desk or the paper screen of texts or a blanket grabbed up for all four to get behind—counts for a lot. The tale-telling trio are clad in loose white outfits that make them easy to focus on as they dart about amongst the tables like will o’ the wisps.

M, in glasses with sturdy frames and a rather no-nonsense attitude—all things considered—roots the proceedings in a reality not as threatening as it might be. This could be a play of someone losing her mind, coming apart in a schizophrenic meltdown, but as enacted by Jacksch seems rather to be a lengthy, therapeutic exploration. Kane gives us a protracted whine about sex and death and the ineluctable modalities of physical existence and mental distraction—the conditions of inner angst that a writer has only the dwindling resources of imagination and graceful utterance to combat or overcome.

At times we might be in the midst of repressed memories—the kind that come out on the psychiatrist’s couch—at other times we might be in a moment of truth one might reveal to a lover or friend. B is the most petulant, seeming to want something to be resolved, preferably in his favor; A is the most histrionic, at one point mooning us or grabbing a microphone like a game show host looking to entertain with embarrassing factoids; C is generally like some Id-child, storming about, almost hyperventilating, and having “accidents” we associate with childhood. M is often like a patient teacher or older sister, stern but forgiving, until the whirlwind of loose ends begins to take its toll.

Like a kind of verbal Rorschach test, the text of Crave is something that no two audience members will experience the same way, and this staging by a playwright and four dramaturgs brings that text to life in imaginative ways, so whether or not we follow every implied dramatic situation, we still get the kind of visceral pleasures we come to the Cabaret to find. At times moving, at times funny, at times wildly histrionic, Crave is a fascinating “treatment” of a certain kind of modern ailment—the compunction to find words adequate to experience. If only to find the final word we all crave.

 

Crave By Sarah Kane Directed by Hansol Jung

Dramaturg: Kee-Yoon Nahm; Producer: Sally Shen; Set Designer: Samantha Lazar; Assistant Set Designer/Tech Consultant: Andrew Freeburg; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Gahyae Ryu; Projection Designer: Ni Wen; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Assistant Director: Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick; Photographs: Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street November 14-16, 2013

The Cabaret Continues...

The Yale Cabaret is dark this weekend, but the shows for the rest of the semester—and into early January—have been chosen. The upcoming schedule boasts a daunting mix of plays by challenging playwrights—Sarah Kane, Edward Bond—plays adapted from other sources, such as stories by Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, and the popular entertainment Gunsmoke, plays originating with YSD actors leagued with YSD directors, and a movement piece developed by two prominent Cabaret theater managers. Here’s the line-up: Up next week is Cab 4: Beginners by Raymond Carver, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, October 17-19. Carver was the preeminent American short story writer of the 1980s, but the play is not simply an enactment of one of his stories; rather, the story “What We Talk About…” is famous as one of the best-known stories by Carver that was in fact heavily edited by Gordon Lish before appearing in print. The play, adapted by 2nd-year YSD playwright Phillip Howze and directed by 2nd-year YSD director Andras Viski, dramatizes the writing process as well as the fraught relationships in the story, with a set design intended to suggest both the reality and unreality of fiction.

After a dark week, Cab 5 brings us Radio Hour, a chance to peek behind the scenes at a lost art: telling stories on a live radio broadcast. With ten performers, the show, adapted by Tyler Kieffer and Steve Brush of the YSD sound department and directed by Paula Bennett, stresses “slick not schtick” in its authentic radio effects dramatization of 1950s staples of radio programming, John Meston's Western Gunsmoke (which would go on to be one of the longest-running TV shows ever), and “Zero Hour” (not to be confused with the Rod Serling radio program from the Seventies), a tale from the fertile pen of sci-fi/thriller-writer Ray Bradbury.  Radio Hour will be a fitting show for Halloween weekend—come as a cowboy or an alien. October 31-November 2.

After another dark week, a production of Sarah Kane’s Crave is Cab 6. Directed by 3rd year YSD playwright Hansol Jung, this four-person play explores the voices in the mind of a playwright in the midst of creation. Kane is known for the open-ended, interpretive nature of her plays, in which speakers are often unspecified, leaving much to the creative team to devise.  November 14-16.

Cab 7 takes place the week before Thanksgiving—the American holiday that celebrates getting by. Derivatives, conceived by 3rd-year YSD actor Jabari Brisport and directed by 3rd-year YSD director Cole Lewis, is a devised, multimedia theater piece that explores the increasing distance between the Haves and the Have-nots in this land of ours. The disparity in incomes in the U.S. is greater than it’s been since the 1920s. Political, entertaining, with a real sense of problems and the need for solutions, the play is not afraid to ask the big questions. November 21-23.

The week after Thanksgiving, and the last show of the first semester, is Cab 8, a movement piece called Bound to Burn, developed by Rob Chikar and Alyssa Simmons, two Cab regulars who work behind-the-scenes on many shows, as Stage Manager and Theater Manager, respectively, and who share a penchant for dancing. The show investigates the experience of loss, using bodily rather than verbal expression. December 5-7.

The first two shows of the next semester, following the winter holidays, take place in January: Cab 9 features Have I None, a daunting play by British playwright Edward Bond from 2000. Set in 2077, the play darkly imagines a dystopia in which memory, and therefore history, has been erased. Second-year YSD director Jessica Holt will stage the claustrophobic play—in which going out of one’s room is risky business---with a stress on Bond's sense of the absurd. January 16-18.

Cab 10 features 3rd-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown’s original play, The Defendant, about the rigors of public school in New York (where Monte-Brown taught before enrolling at Yale); the play aims to recreate some of the anxieties of today’s student, and to question the values of public education in America, using all 1st year actors in the YSD program. January 23-25.

And that’s the line-up, as the Cab continues its mission of exploring the purpose of theater in our community—as entertainment and provocation, as a questioning of and a response to the world we live in. There’s a little something for everyone—the past, the present, the future; the nowhere space of creation; the problems of education and the economy; the bonds of bodily contact; the voices of our inner demons; the voices on the airwaves. See you at the Cab!

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven

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