“I don’t find my plays depressing or lacking in hope. But I’m someone whose favourite band is Joy Division because I find their songs uplifting. To create something beautiful about despair is, for me, the most life-affirming thing a person can do.”
– Sarah Kane, in conversation with Aleks Sierz, 14 September 1998
*[ADVISORY: This production features frequent use of strobe lighting effects.]
I recently thought about contacting someone I used to be close with. I’ve deliberately made a point of not contacting exes for no good reason – I’ll be damned if I ever become the guy carrying a torch years after the fire went out. No, I realize that an ended relationship is just that (no matter – or, perhaps, because of – how much it still hurts). Still, when someone leaves such a lasting impact on your life, it’s only natural that they’ll appear in your thoughts every now and then.
In this particular case, I thought of making contact in the wake of recent celebrity suicides (Anthony Bourdain, et. al). I won’t go into why, but there are certain people who immediately pop into your head when you see something on the news. Such was the case here. I’m fine with no longer being a part of their life, so long I know that their life is actually going on.
Ultimately, I decided to not make contact. I’ll just to take it on faith that they’re in a good place right now.
As if recent morbid celebrity news weren’t enough to shift my mind in that direction – to say nothing of the fact that folks like Kanye West were publicly coming to grips with mental health issues – there was also the fact that a small local company named Anton’s Well decided produce Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. Of all the possible plays at all the possible times, they produced this one now. This one is unique, even amongst those of us familiar with Kane’s short repertoire: it doesn’t have the blatant social commentary of Blasted, Skin, or Cleansed; it isn’t a reimagined classic like Phaedra’s Love; it’s even more esoteric than its immediate predecessor Crave. None of that escapes the one indisputable fact about Kane’s final work. Namely, the reason why it’s her final work.
4.48 Psychosis was her suicide letter.
This is another review where I’ll forego my usual plot description. There is no plot. There aren’t even “characters” in the traditional sense. The text gives no set descriptions or actions; just lines and lines of prose. It reads less like a play and more like a notebook that captured its author’s various streams of consciousness. Occasionally, bouts of “dialogue” will pop up, but you’re never sure if it’s a proper character speaking to another person or to themself. The play is so all-over-the-map that’s it’s no surprise that it’s the most rarely-produced piece from an already-incendiary author. I mean, what the hell do you do with this material?
Fortunately, Anton’s Well had a good answer.
If there is any one flaw in this new production, it’s the fact that no one seemed to have researched the title. Both the three performers (Anastasia Barron, Jody Christian, and Adrian Deane) and director Rob Estes (in his pre-show speech) all mispronounce the title as “four-point-four-eight”. The number isn’t a proper decimal so much as representation of decimal time, which far more prominent in Europe. As such, the title is properly pronounced “four-forty-eight,” representing the time in which the insomniac Kane would write the text because she couldn’t sleep. (Jay-Z used the same logic for titling his last album 4:44.) Since the number isn’t recited aloud often, it isn’t much of a concern. Just irked me whenever it happened.
Because besides that, this production is a fine representation of a mind at war with itself – equal parts beautiful and chaotic (the latter often represented by some seizure-inducing flashing strobes – this show’s other noticeable flaw). The piece opens with our three performers moving to the prelude of Bach’s “Cello Suites” (which seems to get a bit electronica-ish at the midway) in a fluid motion that becomes more excitable as the piece continues.
Over the course of the show, our “character(s)” will wax on everything from the loss of sexual arousal due to anti-depression medication to the visceral physical reactions of self-harm. Occasionally, the consciousness will split into an apparent “doctor-patient” duo who discuss the progress – or lack thereof – from the latest treatment. They will cry, they will scream, they will sit, they will stand, and yes, they will dance. It ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but our unnamed character knows one indisputable truth: it will end.
In most cases, having a cast composed of three visually similar (nearly interchangeable) performers would be a hinderance. Here, it works to the advantage of director Rob Estes. Breaking the single consciousness into three similarly-dressed parts (courtesy of costumer Katja Rivera) suggests a Freudian Id/Ego/Super-Ego, but no performer remains in any one role. Power shifts, focus changes, and any one of the performers can completely disappear from any “scene” without explanation or expectation that they will return. I can only recall having seen one performer before (Barron, who starred in the deeply frustrating Waafrika 123 earlier this year), I had no expectations. Having said that, the three ladies provide a fascinating and haunting glimpse of a psyche broken into three pieces.
Once you’ve seen the show, you’ll immediately understand why choreographer Bridgette Loriaux is credited as being equally important to the production. As I mentioned above, the movements can be as chaotic as they are fluid. It’s a fine example of collaborators bringing together separate parts in service of a greater whole.
On that note, I also have to applaud to the lighting work of Nathan Bogner. Seizing strobes notwithstanding (seriously, this show needs some kind of advisory regarding those damn strobes), I was actually fascinated by the lighting scheme for this show. As the set photo above shows, the atmosphere starts with a series of scrim-made shapes and non-solid lights. Over the course of the show, the palette changes and the shapes vary; spotlights are added just for the sake of not focusing on one of the performers. A few points even have full-up house lights. Incredibly effective.
Although I didn’t wind up contacting the person I knew, I couldn’t help but think of all the people I’ve known in my entire life (my younger brother amongst them) who have attempted suicide. Please don’t ask me “how many?” – knowing one is too much. I try my best to put myself in their shoes, thinking that the only relief to an ailment is to embrace complete darkness. It would be easy for a skeptic to call them cowards or someone empathic to say they need help, but neither of those answers would account for someone in the hospital wishing to end their life after a long battle with a terminal illness. These are questions humanity has asked itself for centuries. There is no single answer.
Yet a piece like 4.48 Psychosis is the rare piece that looks at the situation from the point-of-view of someone who sadly went through with it. It’s the sort of thing that can easily slide into exploitation territory. Rob Estes and his collaborators wisely interpret the work in a way worthy of an artist, such as the one who wrote it. By doing so, they’ve created one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.
4.48 Psychosis is scheduled to run until the 5th of August at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
Be Advised that this production features frequent use of strobe lighting effects.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.