Sunday, September 22, 2013

'Blasted': A Disturbing Work From A Tormented Mind Is Revived at the Duo Theater

British playwright Sarah Kane is probably best known for her final work, 4.48 Psychosis, written shortly before she committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28.  Early lines in that play do read like a suicide note:

I am sad
I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve
I am bored and dissatisfied with everything
I am a complete failure as a person
I am guilty, I am being punished
I would like to kill myself

 But turn back the clock four years to 1995, when Kane burst upon the scene with her first play, Blasted, a revival of which is now on view at the Duo Theater on East Fourth Street. 

In its day, Blasted was seen as a mighty gut punch of a play, with graphic depictions of emotional and physical abuse, rape, torture, and even cannibalism—almost unrelenting in its portrayal of humans who have been driven to the depths by both personal demons and conditions of war. 
It is a sorry state of affairs when such in-your-face depravity—accompanied by periodic expulsions of human effluvia—no longer shocks.  Wide press and televised coverage of the ugly places in the world has seen to that.  

So if you are not weak of stomach (even without shock value, the gross-out factor remains high) and you can view the play clinically rather than viscerally, what is left is hard to define:  An allegory of war?  An anarchist rant? An outward representation of the playwright’s inner torment? 

I would say it contains elements of all three, with a trajectory that takes it from relatively realistic to surrealistic to hallucinatory over the course of the evening.  It is this constant teetering of tone, along with an ending that veers into Samuel Beckett territory, that makes Blasted sufficiently intriguing so as not to be easily dismissed as a misguided Theatre of Cruelty venture. 

Blasted opens in a hotel room in Leeds, a bustling urban area in West Yorkshire, England. Ian, a gun-toting journalist (and maybe an ex-intelligence agent) who spews racist, misogynistic, and homophobic comments, is on a sort of holiday with his former girlfriend, Cate. Cate, who has agreed only reluctantly to come along, is mentally slow and is subject to blackout spells and fits.  She does seem most vulnerable, but nonetheless she has a few tricks up her sleeve that allow her to gain the upper hand when she wants to.  (Watch out when she gets hold of the gun!)
The first half of the play focuses on the pair. Ian, who is slowly dying of lung cancer, is alternately abusive and attentive, even vulnerable himself on occasion.  Cate is alternately victim and tormentor. These are not the kind of folks you’d care to spend much time alone with.  

Eventually, however, they are no longer alone. Into the room bursts a heavily-armed soldier of vaguely South Asian or Middle Eastern origin. The hotel, which is now in the middle of a war zone, is bombed, and violent chaos erupts and flows pretty much unabated throughout the rest of the play.  I’ll spare the details.

As to the production, there is no faulting the director Will Detlefsen, the creator of the scary sound design Aidan Zev Meyer, or the actors—Jason De Beer as Ian and Marie Botha as Cate (the pair also share producing credits), and Logan George as the soldier. They have taken on this project with no holds barred and have fully immersed themselves into all of its ugliness. Mr. De Beer is particularly strong as Ian, the most fully realized character, an Everyman or a Job whose life is shattered up to the breaking point. In the end he remains one of the dying but is unable to attain the relief of death.   

It was this image that stuck with me as I left the theater, and I thought of the last lines of Samuel Beckett’s novel, "The Unnamable":

You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.

Blasted is not a play that will be produced very often. If you do want to see a most unusual work from the troubled mind of a playwright who herself longed for the relief of death, now is the time to catch it.  The run is scheduled to end on September 28.

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