Do It Live!'s production of Phaedra's Love opens with a portrait of putrefaction. So copious are the stage's dirty laundry, pizza boxes, and partly finished bags of cereal that towers have sprouted from the undergrowth. At the center of this detritus cityscape (the set design is by Kirsten Royston and Jessica Chaffin) lounges Hippolytus (Michael Zavala), wearing tighty-whities that aren't so tighty and a wifebeater stretched translucent by his ballooning belly. The television glows; Hippolytus watches comatose, not even noticing when the pizza he's eating falls out of his mouth. He gorges, watches television, and jerks off at the same time, catching his cum with perhaps the same sock he likes to sneeze into. (All this is hilariously underscored by the techno stylings of Catfish Deity.) Look carefully, though, and you'll see one detail that doesn't fit with its filthy surroundings: This slob wears a crown atop his head.
Sarah Kane's 1996 play shares a basic storyline with the Greek myth on which it's based: It's about royalty, and it doesn't end well. Prince Hippolytus inspires love and lust in his stepmother Phaedra (Whitney Thomas), he does not requite, and both, the tragic plot dictates, must die, with Phaedra's husband Theseus (Aaron Teixeira) and daughter Strophe (April Fritz) as collateral damage.
But in few other ways does this grotesque drama resemble its inspiration -- starting with a Hippolytus who is "difficult, moody, cynical, bitter, fat, decadent, spoilt."
A two-year-old company founded by recent S.F. State alums, Do It Live! has dedicated its new season, of which Phaedra's Love is the first play, to the age-old prerogative of youth: to "Vandalize the Classics." This production, under the astute direction of Ben Landmesser, takes its vandalizing very seriously. There are no gods watching over Sarah Kane's dramatic universe. There is no concern for audience comfort, no decorum ensuring the sex and violence are tucked safely offstage or merely suggested. There is only an insidious destructive force that slowly consumes all that we see, reducing human characters to carnivorous dogs.
Not that they were very human to begin with. If Phaedra and Strophe speak some lines that wouldn't be too out of place in a Greek tragedy ("I'll die for this family"), the men are pure nihilists. Hippolytus, the center of the play, either hates or is bored by everything. When Phaedra throws herself at him, he responds, "Fuck someone else; imagine it's me." Zavala plays his part with extreme naturalism, rarely raising his voice above a mutter, barely needing to twitch a muscle to make his sneers froth with disgust. He contrasts starkly with Fritz's Strophe and Thomas's Phaedra, whose professions of love and honor expand to fill Bindlestiff Studios. The disparity in styles at times makes the women look silly, but that's part of the point: In Sarah Kane's world, conviction and faith are foolish. Yet in Do It Live!'s hands, that world is ghastly fun to watch.