Curtain Call: Sex, violence, and royalty at Yale

Yale Summer Cabaret, New Haven: Phaedra’s Love is a brutally violent and sexually explicit play performed by a brilliant cast and directed with honesty and integrity. With blood and gore presented so close to an audience in a small black box space, the gory action sends chills up your spine.  This is most definitely not a play for those faint of heart or for youngsters. A prince actually has his most private body part cut off and paraded about. His stomach is split open and his entrails spill out right before your eyes, if you can manage not to turn away. But what could inspire such a play to be written?

Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love was motivated by two sources. The first motivation was the breakdown of the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. When that divorce hit the news, there was plenty of talk of infidelity for both parties, as well as rumors of hot and heavy clandestine meetings. Kane was also inspired by and based the play on Roman philosopher and dramatist Seneca’s (54CE) most violent play, Phaedra, wife of the King of Athens. The plot of both Seneca’s and Kane’s play revolves around Phaedra’s obsessive love and lust for her stepson Hippolytus.

Currently, Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is wrapping up the Yale Summer Cabaret season. It has been a season spotlighting plays with the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. Phaedra’s Love includes more than its fair share of these sins. Sex and violence are always in the spotlight here, so again those sensitive to this type of action need to be forewarned.

Paul Cooper plays a hot-headed Thesius, the king who not only married Phaedra, but on their  wedding night had sex with her daughter Strophe. Cooper’s performance is like a sudden thunderstorm that quickly clouds and  blackens everything in its path. Bronte England-Nelson plays the lovely Strophe with a perfect balance of  calm refinement and wild anger. Strophe is passionately in love with Hippolytus. Niall Powderly plays Hippolytus as a totally immoral human being. He loves no one. He slovenly stuffs junk food down his mouth while watching television or playing with his remote control car from his bathtub. His performance moves from creating the most unfeeling and unlikable spoiled rotten prince to a demented being that even a psychiatrist would shrink from.

Elizabeth Stahlman plays the title role. She presents her character as totally consumed with love and lust for Hippolytus. Phaedra has no idea that her daughter has slept with both the king and the prince. Stahlman’s performance is nothing short of  riveting. Others in the ensemble include: Elizabeth Dinkova, Sean Boyce Johnson, and Kevin Hourigan. The entire Yale cast performs so well that they leave an indelible mark in your memory.

Fufan Zhang’s set is an extensive and intricate spider web criss-crossing against the back of the performance space and trapping framed paintings of notable historic figures and a piano in its design. It’s as if it’s an ever-growing  composition of entrapped royalty. Center stage features a bathtub that couldn’t possible cleanse the filth that occupies it. Andrew F. Griffin and Christopher Ross-Ewart provide the mood setting lighting and sound design respectively. Sarah Woodham’s costumes reflect the dark or light souls of the characters.

If you can handle sex and violence up close, then you’ll want to experience this thrilling play. The cast and crew are incredibly talented and will undoubtedly become stars in their careers. Directed with brutal honesty by Jesse Rasmussen, this is a most unforgettable theater experience. It plays through Aug. 14. (One can order dinner here before the show and one is most thankful that it is served before the show.)

Box office: 203-432-1566.

Joanne Greco Rochman is an active member in The American Theatre Critics Association.  She welcomes comments. Contact: