In artistically conservative San Diego, theater companies are just beginning to tackle the works of controversial British playwright Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in 1999. Her plays are known for their fusion of brutally violent imagery, wry wit and intense, beautiful lyricism.
Kane wrote five plays between 1995 and 1999, and ushered in the so-called genre of "in yer face theater," presenting vulgar, shocking and confrontational material on stage. She was both reviled and lauded by critics, fellow playwrights and audiences -- alternately called an immature shock writer or a complex, literary and misunderstood playwright.
These days, Kane is widely regarded as a major force in British theater.
On local stages, her work is barely recognized. Lynx Performance Theatre's acclaimed production of "Crave" in May marked the local professional premiere of Kane's work. Now Stone Soup Theatre gives a bold yet accessible, if heavy handed, performance of "4.48 Psychosis" in its San Diego premiere.
Throughout her life, Kane suffered from frequent bouts of depression, each episode increasingly debilitating. She hanged herself at age 28, just months after completing her final work, "4.48 Psychosis."
"4.48" was clearly informed by Kane's own depression and contemplation of suicide. Haunting, poetic and dripping with dark humor, the play is a look at a fractured mind resolutely focused on suicide. The title refers to the hour before dawn when the fog of mental illness momentarily dissipates. It also marks her clarity of purpose: "At 4:48 I will hang myself to the sound of my lover's breathing."
Kane radically experimented with form, often dispensing with such dramatic conventions as plot, character description and stage direction. "4.48" was written as a prose poem, with no defined characters and only a single stage direction -- giving directors an unusual amount of freedom of interpretation. It has been performed as a solo piece as well as by numerous actors.
Three actors take the stage in the Stone Soup production, corresponding to the figures of "victim, perpetrator and bystander" referenced in the text. Each represents a facet of Kane's fractured mind: Therese Schneck as victim, clad in white; Olivia Espinosa as perpetrator, the dark side of Kane's unconscious, dressed in black; and Steve Hohman as bystander, representing Kane's psychiatrist.
Schneck gives a finely tuned, mesmerizing performance, at once both lyrical and earthy. Espinosa is more hostile and aggressive, an incarnation of the part of the brain that thinks the things that should go unsaid. Hohman is detached and nearly mechanical, further suggesting his role as bystander in "a room of expressionless faces staring at my pain." The audience, too, is implicated in this statement, and director Rebecca Johannsen underscores this by having Hohman sit among the audience for a time, quietly "taking notes" (actually playing solo hangman) on the splintered mind of his patient.
The Stone Soup production uses video projections, movement, music and voice vers to illuminate the text. The dance-like movement, choreographed by Ericka Aisha Moore, has Schneck and Espinosa rolling together on the floor, a tangled struggle between hope and despair, darkness and light. Moore also created the play's sound design, using a purposefully disquieting mix of melancholy violin strains, techno drum beats and oddly buoyant horn music as the characters rush through an inventory of prescription drugs and their side effects.
Valerie Steele's simple and symbolic set design features a semicircle with steps leading down to a line of stones, emotional weights in the boundary between sanity and madness. Two curtains cut in plastic strips are a nice touch, concealing and reminiscent of a butcher's freezer, with Kane's mind primed for the pharmacological slaughter.
Yet whether by intention or not, the overall effect of Stone Soup's production is one of alienation and otherness -- while the inward focus of Kane's final play demands intimacy.
Director Johannsen has made a few missteps in this regard. Chief among these is the ghoulish makeup worn by the actors. Their garish faces and Halloween-type costumes immediately recall Elvira, Bride of Frankenstein and the "American Psycho" serial killer.
The power of "4.48" is that we all feel at least some of the same shame, guilt, fear, anger and overwhelming sadness expressed in the play, at least some of the time. These are universal emotions that don't need the trappings of stylized makeup, macabre costumes or projected images, which can detract from the poignancy of the text.
Kane was a woman who felt too much: "I've never understood what it is that I'm not supposed to feel," she said, and her words will likely continue to push emotional buttons among audiences for a long time to come. Despite some unevenness, Stone Soup's production of "4.48 Psychosis" does push many of the right buttons. And in a town that ought to take more chances artistically, theater groups willing to test boundaries with such powerful, edgy works are invaluable.
PROGRAM: "4.48 Psychosis"
Organization: Stone Soup Theatre
Dates: Through Sept. 17
Show times: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Location: Tenth Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., downtown
More information: (760) 434-9363, www.stonesouptheatre.net