There is an English girl with cognitive problems. Pretty, blond, and mentally challenged. She makes funny faces and picks things — bugs? — out of her hair and scrutinizes them, even when people are watching. She's like a little girl. She is lying on a bed in a hotel room rented by a friend in Leeds, England.
The friend, a man, emerges from the bathroom and walks over to the bed, appraising the girl the way he might appraise an assortment of power tools. He pulls down his pants and waggles his penis. "Put your mouth on it," he says. She glances at his member and laughs. "Haw, haw, haw, haw, haw!"
This is Sarah Kane's Blasted, a play full of uncomfortable moments, and that one is only a very minor example. Savaged by critics upon its debut and salvaged by hindsight after the 28-year-old author's (not-at-all-surprising-given-how-incredibly-fucking-twisted-her-imagination-was) suicide in 1999, Blasted has been called "filth," "pornography," and, later, "deeply moral."
By Sarah Kane; directed by Joseph Adler; with Betsy Graver, Todd Allen Durkin, and Erik Fabregat. Through March 28. GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119, gablestage.com
For staid SoFla theater audiences, the savaging might be easier to understand than the salvaging — although Blasted is a great, and maybe a Great, play. It never leaves the hotel room in Leeds, but it's not Leeds as you know it. This is a war-torn place that might as well be Bosnia in 1993 or Rwanda in '94, full of every wartime depravity. Though there is little sign of violence when the guests check in.
Ian (Todd Allen Durkin) is mostly interested in getting into Cate's pants, while Cate (Betsy Graver) is mostly happy to be doing something so grown-up as hanging out in a hotel room and catching up with her old boyfriend. That Ian and Cate once dated, despite Cate's mental infirmity, is mentioned but never explained. They are too caught up in their moment to provide backstory. They know the score already anyway.
Which is why they are unsurprised, but we are shocked, when Cate, midsentence, goes into a terrible spasm. Choking and sputtering, she hollers a single syllable over and over again — "Ey, ey, ey, ey, ey!" — with her face twisted into a ghoulish approximation of a grin as if she's caricaturing the laugh of the carefree spirit she might have been. She collapses backward on the bed, no more in control of her muscles than she is of her vocal cords. Ian looks bored. She does this all the time, and she is too much in his power for him to feign concern.
Ian by turn taunts, cajoles, and comforts her, and what he's feeling is anybody's guess. Todd Allen Durkin's face gives away nothing. His character is a journalist but also some kind of soldier. (With the country split by an unexplained civil war, it seems everyone is a soldier of some kind.) Whatever Ian has seen and done has burned away many of his basic human responses, and he seems bewildered by his inability to feel anything for the wretched creature in his bed. He's turned on, but even that seems to bore him.
Durkin's portrayal of Ian is an image of power unmoored from responsibility. He has a big revolver he spins around the room as an explicit adjunct to his frequently bared shlong, and who cares if Cate is frightened? He knows he can calm her with a few words. But he won't mean them. Durkin's eyes look dead: Ian is incapable of meaning anything. The one exception comes when he says of soldiery: "I've done the jobs they ask because I love this land! Standing in the stations, listening to conversations... disposing of bodies. Planting bombs, killing kiddies... That's what I do."
But you get the feeling he has done what they ask, whoever they are, less because he loves England than because he hates those he perceives as being un-English. The Pakis, the blacks, all of them — "Being born here doesn't make you English," he says. And though he is the very picture of power in the bedroom, one wonders if he seems so hard in here because he feels so soft out there, where the culture he knows is being ripped away from him, one dusky baby, one racial skirmish at a time. In here, he is the Man. And he wants to get laid. But he can't.
In desperation, Ian finally settles for the cheap thrill of wanking forlornly on the bed. Out of guilt or charity, Cate joylessly lends a hand. When Ian cums, she bites her lip. "Is it better?" she asks. Ian nods. "Sorry," she says — meaning, "I'm sorry it's come to this," or maybe "I'm sorry I didn't let you screw me." It's difficult to tell.
In the morning, it is apparent Ian has raped her. She's crying and can't piss or crap — only blood comes out. She's reasonably calm about it, upbraiding Ian for his trespass the way a saner or smarter woman might scold her boyfriend for saying something hurtful. (Her greatest act of retribution is refusing to eat the breakfast he orders from room service, which prompts him to refer to her as a "soggy tart.")
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Everything that made Blasted a critics' whipping boy is revealed in the next scene, when a soldier (Erik Fabregat) breaks into the hotel room. Cate is gone, the hotel room has been destroyed by a mortar blast, and, after describing in — yea, pornographic — detail all the acts of cruelty he has taken part in during the war, the soldier, a foreigner, purrs to Ian: "I am dying to make love." Though that's not exactly what happens. The soldier rapes Ian and then sucks out his eyes.
I trust I'm not giving away anything too important by relating those details. They have been repeatedly reported in the press, usually breathlessly and usually in the context of a complaint. I'm not sure why. Kane wrote nothing into the script that doesn't occur in the nontheatrical world with mind-numbing regularity. Brutality happens. Theater is about things that happen. So it goes. I didn't think the eye-slurping and rapes were all that shocking.
What shocked me was how credible Fabregat's soldier was when he said he needed to make love. He certainly looked love-starved. Is this what happens when death is always imminent, and we are given guns, and we discover there is no law higher than the one we make for ourselves? I don't know, and Sarah Kane didn't either. What she did know was that power corrupts: Cate is the only character to make it through the play in any shape at all. She was the most powerless person on the stage, and even after countless rapes and degradations, her eyes are full of dumb hope.