Monday, January 25, 2010

The darkest hour

Casey Seymour Kim in 4:48 Psychosis.

In Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, the "4:48" of the title refers to that darkest of hours, the one that comes just before dawn. For the despairing narrator of this long night of the soul, however, it also marks an unusual moment of clarity in her ongoing decline into fragmentation and pain. And for her, that promised dawn never comes; instead, in her last moment of clarity she chooses to end it all, with a simple, resigned command - "Open the curtain."

The playwright, of course, famously made the same decision - Kane took her own life just before 4:48 began rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in 2000. That last, terrible act both bestowed upon the script an undeniable aura of authenticity, and yet at the same time made it almost impossible to consider the play as a work of art rather than autobiography.

Of course sometimes the two forms can fuse - and it's hard to deny that this was the case with 4:48, particularly when so many of her friends could testify to Kane's long struggle with depression, and the fact that she repeatedly awoke at yes, 4:48 AM. Likewise no one familiar with Kane's oeuvre could have been surprised at the subdued intensity of her final opus. The literal horrors (cannibalism, rape, penile amputation) that had made her early work notorious had now been subsumed into night terrors. But while the weapons of 4:48 Psychosis may only be daggers of the mind, they nevertheless draw real blood.

And there's definitely a lot of the red stuff on the floor in the new Gamm Theatre production of this harrowing, but compelling, work (playing now through February 7). The piece is famously open to multiple interpretations; there are no "characters," or even stage directions; the text reads more like a poem than a play. Cast sizes have ranged in number from 1 to 12, but the Gamm Theatre's Artistic Director, Tony Estrella, has decided on two, structuring the piece around the implied relationship between Kane (here "Woman") and a nameless psychiatrist.

This decision, I'm afraid, has a downside: the emphasis on clinical mental illness slightly dilutes the poetic dimension of Kane's writing, as well as its evocation of deep inner disorientation and, yes, madness. This is essentially 4:48: Manic Depression, not 4:48 Psychosis. Still, perhaps sensing this gap, director Estrella supplies an ongoing stream of video imagery and lighting/sound effects that do evoke to some degree a sense of growing personal disintegration.

And on the plus side, the story-spine that Estrella has provided the script does seem to allow audiences access to its power; the nearly sell-out crowd I caught it with down in Pawtucket, of all places, seemed utterly absorbed in a work that no major theatre in New England has yet dared to produce. And in the central role, the fearless Casey Seymour Kim did limn Kane's brand of dark with a twitchy intelligence, an unguarded reserve of emotion, and yes, even a playful wit (the play is often mordantly funny); watching her was like watching a lonely soul with a single candle venture down every hallway of a truly terrifying haunted house. How this actress goes through this every night I've no idea.

But make no mistake: Sarah Kane's voice is indeed great enough - Beckett-like, but number, if needier - to have earned her a niche in what we call for lack of a better word "the canon," probably only the second female playwright we can confidently place there (Caryl Churchill is the other). That Kane is so rarely produced in this country counts as a scandal, and the fact that the Huntington and the A.R.T. have found time for the likes of Pirates! and Red Sox Nation while ignoring Blasted and Crave only underlines my long-standing complaint against their policies regarding "new work." Kane doesn't even count as "new" anymore, and yet our major theatres are still afraid of her; if only they could grow the same balls that the Sarah Feinstein-Gamm Theatre down in Pawtucket, R.I. seems to sport. And if only their audiences responded like the ones in Pawtucket and Providence! Just as I often feel at Trinity Rep, the connection between audience and actors at the Gamm was all but palpable; later, at the talkback, when one woman angrily protested, "Where was the nobility in this? Where was the hope?", another audience member confidently replied, "It was in our seeing this; it was in our being here." That made me want to weep almost more than anything that had come before in a production that I'd say represents required viewing for theatre lovers across the region.


  1. I saw the Fort Point production a couple of years ago.

    I was planning to see this at the Gamm, but reading your review reminded me of what a disturbing and depressing evening it is.

    I think I may take a pass. Is that understandable? I am, though, interested in how it staged. Fort Point used two actresses as well.

  2. Oh, dear. A positive review that talked you OUT of seeing the production? I have to think about that one. . .

  3. Just came back from this and loved it. I loved the direction and Casey Seymour Kim is just a marvel in it. Everyone needs to drive down there and see it.

    Fascinating that 4:48 AM is her best hour. It's one of my worst.