Death Becomes Her
Depressed playwright Sarah Kane killed herself in 1999, and 4.48 Psychosis was her last work. It sounds like a last work, too: full of desperate and unhappy self-indulgence, a sense of options exhausted and possibilities closed. Think of the sound of Elvis Presley's booming, bloated voice on 1977's Moody Blue, or of Edgar Allan Poe's mechanical menace in The Bells. Psychosis is like this.
Which is not necessarily bad — just depressing. Kane was a restless artistic soul, and her psychological suffering resulted in restless, depression-based art. Her script is odd. Other than an occasional indication for "silence" or "long silence," it contains no stage direction, no story, and no characters. There are only words, a great glut of them, stretched across 42 pages in formations that sometimes resemble concrete poetry. That poetry is about pain and nothing else — self-absorbed explications of torment that seem as likely to inspire contempt as compassion. Here is a representative sampling: "I feel that the future is hopeless and things cannot improve." "This is not a world in which I wish to live." "My thought walks away with a killing smile/Leaving discordant anxiety/Which roars in my soul." "Love keeps me alive in a cage of tears."
What do you do with material like this? Apparently anything you want. Lacking characters or stage direction, Psychosis is an openhearted submission to any theater company choosing to tackle it. Having understood this, everyone involved in the Naked Stage production runs wild. There is nothing in their work that is not explosive. This is true of the actors — Katherine Amadeo's "The Patient," Erin Joy Schmidt's "The Doctor," and Kim Ehly's "The Lover" are fully fleshed and bottomlessly weird — but it is also true of the artists and technicians, who, in most productions, would go unrecognized. Sevim Abaza's lighting design is a marvel, a creation with an aesthetic all its own that demands contemplation and appreciation beyond anything Kane has done. When The Patient, Kane's onstage surrogate, stands at a sink and cuts her arm, her body is lit from the bottom up by deep blue light, as though there were a small, sad sun in the basin. As visual art, this is a moment worth looking at in a play that is full of moments like it.
Antonio Amadeo's set is as jarring as the lights. Its focal point is a bed, propped up at an angle that is useful to audience members seeking a better glimpse of the girl-on-girl action destined to take place there, but probably hell on the ladies' backs. Part of the stage becomes a big, industrial shower, the kind of place you might go to get deloused or Zykloned. This area later becomes a small, claustrophobic room in what looks like an asylum. Everywhere, upside-down furniture is suspended from the ceiling. For a moment, Kate Amadeo's hair is whipped violently back by a wind that must come from a fan hidden among the TV sets and hampers up there. There is no reason for this — nothing in the script demands it — but it seems right. Naked Stage has made Kane's circumscribed, hopelessly alienated mind immersive. It lets us in.
The net result is a production that explores death from the wrong end and actually seems to tell us something — even though the script often sounds like something posted on a MySpace blog by a 14-year-old emo chick. This is a remarkable flaw for a play that might be the most exciting thing to happen to South Florida theater this year. To reconcile the apparent paradox, it seems there are two questions that demand answers. The first is this: Was Sarah Kane full of shit?
She did kill herself, which goes a long way toward proving she really was as miserable as Psychosis makes her seem. And even if Kane's suicide was just the grand finale of a self-involved depression drama she secretly loved and encouraged, which I think is possible, you can only fake misery for so long. Eventually, it becomes real or you give up. So figure Psychosis is totally honest. This naturally leads one to ponder another big question: Are people this self-absorbedly depressed capable of producing decent art?
Probably not. If the point of art is to uncover some part of the world that your own experiences have not prepared you for and would never have otherwise revealed, then the inside of a deranged person's head is a pitifully tiny thing to bring to light. Small and unhelpful, it is the topography of a country that should never have been mapped, because it does not in fact exist. Contrary to what she has written in the play, Kane was depressed not because she understood life but because she didn't. Regardless of why, Kane was the opposite of insightful. Many, if not most, of the words in her script seem to describe the hysterical fringes of strong emotions rather than delving into the reasons behind them. "Love keeps me alive in a cage of tears" is a descriptive phrase, but it is a dispatch from someone in the throes of something; a phrase full of immediacy but devoid of content. Kane cannot tell us what love means to her or how it keeps her alive or why she's in a cage. She's too crazy to know.
Perhaps Kane understood this deficiency, and it was her understanding that prompted her to give her script so much interpretive wiggle room for the cooler heads to bring it to life when she was gone. On paper or spoken aloud, Kane's words are beautiful and mysterious but tiresome after just a few minutes: monotonous, self-involved, and bleak beyond reason. Everything that saves them from that fate in the moment of performance relies on other things: on the wild, free aesthetics of Tei and the Amadeos, and on the moxie and verve of Kat Amadeo, Erin Joy Schmidt, and Kim Ehly. They gave life to Kane's walking death. They, not Kane, are the creative ones. Milling around after the show on opening night, they didn't look suicidal at all.
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