Friday, January 23, 2009

Blasted, Bang and Clatter/Cleveland

(This is the last pleasant image you will find in this review. Enjoy it. And revisit it, if you need to take a break from what follows.)

Blasted is vile, scabrous, disgusting, intermittently tedious, cringe-inducing, and as difficult to watch as someone slowly peeling the skin off a live, defenseless animal.

Okay, now that you and I are the only ones left reading this review, let’s talk a bit more in depth about Blasted by Sarah Kane, now at the Bang and Clatter Theatre in Cleveland.

To begin with, every statement in the first paragraph is true. Second, the play is, on the surface, a monumental work of nihilistic self indulgence by a playwright with serious mental problems (she committed suicide in 1999). Third, there is an undeniable pulse of sweetly warped human need that keeps Blasted from being a mere exercise in depravity.

A sensationalistic journalist named Ian has taken a young woman (we never know how young) named Cate to a semi-classy hotel room in England for a tryst or two. But it is soon apparent that Cate is none too bright and has little interest in screwing Ian. And to further complicate matters, she faints dead away at certain times, only to awake pointing and laughing at something only she perceives.

In between his clumsily aggressive forays to seduce Cate, Ian is a one-man OCD festival: fondling his shoulder-holstered pistol, gulping booze, smoking cigarettes, taking showers and trying to cough up a lung—a condition evidently connected to a terminal illness that is stalking him. To top it off, Ian is an unrepentant racist, spitting venom about anyone with a different shade of skin.

The power games ebb and flow between these two, and it is never made clear who is in charge. But we are well aware that fierce storms are raging outside in the streets, as Ian points his gun at the hotel room door every time a hotel staffer knocks to drop off another bottle of gin or a food tray.

But after a (comparatively) tame first half, things change abruptly when one of the knocks on the door turns into a soldier who has wandered up from the streets. Grimy and starving, the unnamed guerrilla keeps his rifle trained on Ian and begins the play’s descent into a hellish conflagration of rape, eyeball gobbling and suicide. Director Sean McConaha clearly is plugged into Kane’s caustic worldview, and he never lets the audience slide off the barbed hook she has devised.

While it is a bit too glib to defend a play saturated with violence as a commentary on how desensitized we all are to violence—that is a circular argument that can spin on forever—there is a core of feeling that Kane taps into in Blasted. For all his awful aspects, Ian is trying to connect with Cate on some level, and vice versa. Even the soldier exhibits a desire to touch another human being, except all his wiring has been ripped out and he can only express such thoughts in the most repellent ways imaginable.

If you can bear up under this two-hour intermission-less assault, you will be treated to three fine performances. As Ian, Nick Koesters is brilliantly numb yet grasping for some shred of humanity. The dark humor that exists in the play comes mostly from his well-tuned performance (when Cate suggests he quit smoking, his off-handed “Yeah, right” is not only funny, it speaks volumes).

Faye Hargate is also excellent as Cate, exploring the young woman’s fear, fleeting moments of happiness and ultimate wounded determination to go on. Allen Branstein makes the soldier a horrific presence and nicely blends this beast’s flickering echoes of contorted decency.

Make no mistake, this play is about as enjoyable as a dead baby (yes, there’s one of those, too). But it is meant to be an invasion of our senses, a dismantling of our comfort zone. This production does that with brutal precision, and so it is a theatrical experience worth considering.

(Note: There is no curtain call at the end, probably because the actors are immediately whisked away to intensive psycho-therapy sessions so they can return the next night.)

Through February 14 at the
Bang and Clatter Theatre,
224 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland,

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