The Wanker's Lament

No doubt about it: Phaedra and her kids are seriously messed up. The Roman playwright Seneca established that fact some 2,000 years ago when he wrote Phaedra's Love, about a mother who lusts after her stepson, then turns around and calls him a rapist when he refuses her advances. Of course, when haunting British playwright Sarah Kane got hold of the story in 1996, she managed to up the ancient ante. She took the workaday tragedy about incest and revenge and turned it into a devastating postmodern screed against power, hypocrisy and the seeming impossibility of love in a contemporary world where God is decidedly dead. Dark, violent, deeply ironic and disturbingly funny, the script is perfect for the quirky talents of the folks at Infernal Bridegroom Productions, who are burning up the stage at The Axiom in more ways than one.

Kirk Markley's shadowy, stone-colored set, establishes the lonely, cold world where this royal family lives. The suffocating, cavelike rooms are lined up like jail cells, and each is occupied by an embittered member of the household who's cut off from the others. In the first quietly measured scene we watch stepson Hippolytus (Troy Schulze) alone in his filthy room. He lounges on his litter-strewn sofa, glued to the tube, gobbling fast food and masturbating into a sock.

As played by the scrawny, swaggering Schulze, the bearded, blazing-eyed Hippolytus is not much different from any other self-involved young man, especially the sort who enjoys the undeserved popularity bestowed on the spoiled prince at the center of this story. He's a local star, despite his insipid, almost infantile, cruelty. But mostly Hippolytus is like every other "wanker," which makes Kane's swipe at our culture's absurd love of celebrity all the more pointed. As with all wankers, Hippolytus suffers from that mean and angsty anyone-who-wants-me-must-not-be-worth-much problem. So he's got a bad habit of loving and leaving his fans. In fact, the only thing he seems to have been able to do with his empty existence is break a long chain of hearts. But the lazy, solipsistic hedonist doesn't have the wherewithal to do any real damage until his stepmother, Phaedra (Tamarie Cooper), enters the picture.

Phaedra, who seems every bit as bored with her royal life as her disgusting stepchild, has decided that she's in love with the boy. "You're in pain. I adore you," she tells him with great, gooey histrionics. Then she adds, "Love isn't very logical." No matter that Phaedra's biological daughter Strophe (Jodi McLaughlin) has warned her mother that Hippolytus is a "sexual disaster area" (turns out Strophe knows what she's talking about). Phaedra has made up her mind to have the youth for her own. So she swoops into his room on his birthday, intending to give him a special "present," only to have her royal dignity unmade by Hippolytus's nasty response. It would seem that Phaedra doesn't like being burned, and she knows better than most how to reap her revenge.

As down and dirty as Phaedra proves to be, many of Cooper's choices are confusing. Her Phaedra is full of affected dignity. She speaks in a strange, imperious voice, but ends up sounding more exhausted than impassioned. She walks slowly with her head held high and drapes a smart-looking champagne-colored silk shawl over her white arms, but all this comes off as stiff play-acting rather than the gestures of a too powerful queen who's used to having "every man in the country sniffing around [her] cunt." Cooper brings none of Phaedra's saucy, self-centered confidence to the stage. She enters Hippolytus's trashy bower timidly, as though she expects to be dissed. Thus the middle-aged queen comes off as a whining, clumsy schoolgirl rather than a grande dame capable of huge payback.

Happily, Phaedra disappears early on, and the rest of the story belongs exclusively to Hippolytus. Schulze, a mainstay of the IBP troupe, has come into his own in this role. He swings freely within the complexities of the character. One minute he's all outrageous male id, stuffing his face, touching his genitals and debasing anyone who'll have him. The next he's filled with an angsty existential grief over the impossibilities of love, excitement and real meaning in a godless world. It's a wild ride of a character and one that Schulze has completely embraced.

His energy alone is enough to carry Kane's hard script, but the production under Jason Nodler's direction offers a great deal more. The show is filled with the technical magic that sets IBP apart from any other theater in Houston. Fires blaze, bellies are cut open -- every gory thing the Greeks and Romans let happen in the wings is pulled to center stage for our voyeuristic delight. And underneath it all is Anthony Barilla's original score, filled with strange, jangling notes and long, low tones that fill the theater with a doleful rage at the sorry state of things.

For all its bleakness, Phaedra's Love is surprisingly entertaining. Sarah Kane, who hanged herself in 1999, has become known for her "literature of despair." And this script fully embraces the power of art to explore the depths of the human condition, brutal as they may be. Certainly this play is no walk in the park (and it truly is for mature audiences only), but there is something so honest in this work that it's difficult not to be strangely uplifted by it.

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Lee Williams