“Once you have perceived that life is very cruel, the only response is to live with as much humanity, humour and freedom as you can. Writing is an expression of that – so it is ironic that people are trying to clamp down on it.”
– Sarah Kane, “A very angry young woman”, The Independent, 23 January 1995
The first impression one has upon entering the Ashby Stage is what I can only describe as a sense of “plainness”. Nina Ball’s intricately designed set is a modern hotel room so monochromatic and angular one would think they hired an interior decorator inspired by Robert Propst. As your eyes scan the gray stone walls, white flowers (callas?) on the table, and the bottle of champagne on ice, your mind tries to drown out the bossa nova-esque elevator music playing overhead. Everything is clean and safe. And dull.
That’s the point – Sarah Kane was pulling a bait-and-switch. When Cate (Adrienne Walters) looks out the window – which, in this case, is looking directly out to the audience – and muses “It looks like there’s a war on,” it’s at stark contrast with the posh, paid-by-the-hour sanctuary in which we find ourselves. Though there’s plenty of violence to be found in this hotel room, it isn’t long before the outside world forces it way in.
If you know anything about this show (or its author), then you know it isn’t an easy piece to put on. I know it from first-hand experience, having acted in a production nine years ago. Though the Shotgun website and advertising are full of disclaimers warning viewers of what’s to come, Artistic Director Patrick Dooley was still inclined to give the audience a final heads-up on this controversial 22-year-old play. He ended with the above quote from Kane, who later killed herself after a long battle with depression. Both Blasted and Kane were initially dismissed as favoring shock value over pathos. In the years since, both have been revalued as not only having heart, but that we’re actually watch that heart break before our eyes.
But if there’s one thing the pre-show intro made clear, it’s that the play hasn’t lost its ability to shock.
It’s a nice hotel, this place in London. This is where Ian has come to get away from it all: his job, his wife, his son, and the war raging right outside. The only person he’s brought with him is Cate, a young girl too naïve to know any better. Ian isn’t a good man and his intentions for Cate are not honorable. But with a war raging outside and illness killing him from within, he doesn’t care anymore. Or so he says.
Cate might not be the smartest girl, but she learns quickly. She observes Ian’s methods and understands the weapons at his disposal. With her quick thinking to rely on, she decides not be a victim anymore. And with the sudden intrusion of a nameless Soldier, the outside world Ian tried to avoid suddenly confronts him face to face.
Because of the inherent shock value, Blasted is one of those shows that can very easily go wrong. It’s not hard to see why it was dismissed upon its premiere: on the surface, it seems like the sort of play a grad student would write in a ham-fisted attempt to be “edgy” and “oh so real”. Watching it from the outside for the first time, I noticed something I hadn’t in performing it or in the times I’ve re-read it: humor. Not belly-laughs, mind you, but director Jon Tracy wisely chooses to let the audience laugh at Ian’s first line in the hotel room. The pistol-wielding tabloid writer is only “dangerous” in his own mind. Sure, he seems tough tormenting a young girl, but this wannabe tough guy is ridiculous. And yeah, we should laugh at this personification of the 1% – in this opening scene at least. Remember, this play is about avoiding the outside world until it faces you head-on.
And the outside world means violence, it means rape, it means death. It’s no surprise that in addition to fight director Elena Wright, Shotgun also brought on a “theatrical violence consultant”. This is the sort of piece that a more exploitative producer would play for all of its the “sexy” and violent potential. But that isn’t what Kane intended, and it’s what Tracy avoids. One of the recurring devices is the actors looking out to the audience to indicate out the hotel window to the carnage outside. This has them both commenting on what they see, as well as staring out the window blankly when they want to take their mind off what’s happening. Graphic depictions aren’t nearly as effective as showing the after effects.
For all this production has going for it, the one major stumble is the casting of Robert Parsons as Ian. He struggles with the accent (all three actors do; I’m guessing the trailer below used different voices) and he never seems to find the right tone for the character; he reads the lines rather than live them. There isn’t much difference between his smug Ian of the start and the desperate Ian of the play’s latter half. And not being as fast and agile as his younger co-stars, it makes it hard to believe he could catch Cate when she tries to run from him.
Since there were no production stills at the time of this writing, here’s the trailer.
Adrienne Walters also struggles with her accent, but she has a better handle on the character of Cate. She isn’t stupid per se, she just hasn’t had time to mature in the world. Walters makes it clear that Cate knows Ian’s intentions from the start – they mention having had an earlier tryst – but she’s willfully ignorant and trying to enjoy her time in a posh hotel. She also has one of most lingering moments of the play: when Ian forces her to give him a hand-job and she stares blankly out the window (read: out at us).
The first time I wrote about Joe Estlack was for a Shotgun show. I mentioned then how his broad-shouldered “hulking frame” made him right for physically intimidating characters. It’s hard to believe this is the same guy I saw in a light musical last December at SF Playhouse. Like his co-stars here, he has trouble with his accent (it starts off sounding pretty American before eventually settling on what-sounds-like Scottish), but he nails the tragedy and intensity of the Soldier. Watching him in his scene with Ian is akin to watching a steaming pot move ever closer to inevitably boiling over. And he finishes the scene with a look out to the audience that also lingers.
This being a Shotgun show, of course the tech side brought its A-game. Knowing the play myself, I started off wondering how such a pristine set by Nina Ball would eventually show off the coming destruction. I won’t give it away here, but the set is unrecognizable by the end. My only complaint about Heather Basarab’s lights is that I’m not a fan of full blackouts between scenes, but that’s a decision made by the text. Still, both the fluorescent lights around Ball’s stage and the “sunlight” effect through the unseen window show Basarab knows exactly what she’s doing.
When the destruction occurs and the lights begin to flicker, they’re coupled with a buzzing sound by Matt Stines. With no score, Stines’ work is an excellent use of subtlety, such as when one character attempts suicide and the buzzing immediately stops once the trigger is pulled. His outdoor traffic sounds were so convincing that I actually wrote in my notes that I couldn’t tell whether they were part of the play or coming from outside the theatre. Add to that an intro and finale that both feature the music (bossa nova at the beginning, Pink Floyd “Us and Them” at the end) growing unbearably loud before cutting out and you have a fine soundscape on your hands.
I’ll end with a nod towards the costumes of Miyuki Bierlein because I’ve always been a fan and would be remiss not to mention it.
There are many ways to read into Blasted: a character study about the horrors of war making monsters of us all; a screed against the wealthy who willfully isolate themselves from the true struggles of the world; an examination on gender roles and the use of sex and violence as forms of power; or maybe you think it’s just a lurid exercise in titillation. That’s for you to decide. Shotgun’s production is about making an impression and interpreting it for yourself. It isn’t a perfect show, but it remains a bold opening statement from an author who said a lot with the very little time she had on this Earth.
Excerpt from an interview that you hear in its entirety here
Blasted is scheduled to run until the 22nd of October at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
The show runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.