A Dark Night of the Soul

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Sarah Kane's play 4.48 Psychosis can be read as the internal monologue of a woman as she descends into psychosis and plans her suicide. Okay, admittedly not a cheery evening in the theater but the play has become a crucible for theater directors. Like Georg Büchner's grueling Woyzeck or Heiner Müller's Hamletmachine, 4.48 Psychosis presents a puzzle that directors are seduced to solve. In the process, their productions tell you as much about the director as the play.

City Garage artistic director Fréderiqué Michel is currently tackling the script in the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station.

psychosis.jpgWhat makes Sarah Kane's play so ripe for interpretation is that it lacks many of the formal characteristics of a play. There are no characters, no setting, and only one stage direction: silence presented in three flavors: (silence), (a long silence), and (a very long silence). The play reads like a poem and demands that a director create a script from its fragments.

Director Michel splits the text among six actors: the woman, a doctor, a nurse and three actors referred to as Brain 1, 2, and 3. These fragmented ‘brain' voices become the thoughts inside the woman's head: there's a buff guy in a white tank top, a woman in a white slip, and, fantastically, a man's head trapped in a Victorian birdcage atop a white pedestal.

City Garage is a company known for their physical work, so it's no surprise that director Michel injects the silence of the piece with absurdist, syncopated movement that feels like a choreography of nervous ticks set to an infectiously hip score. We see our heroine break into a jerky, joyous dance that reveals a glimpse of the happiness that might have once filled her life: a welcome moment of hope against a bleak descent into misery.

Ultimately, the challenge of the play is bringing a suicidal despair to life for an audience, and here the production falls short. Remember the only stage direction: silence? Michel fills some of the play's crucial silences with the sounds of the patient's heart beating. It's clever but it undermines the raw strength of Sarah Kane's words. Words that the playwright wrote shortly before taking her own life.

It's tough not to see the play as a 70-minute suicide note in the same way it's hard not to hear Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" with a totally different set of ears now.

Perhaps, the most difficult thing about the play is there is that there's no redemption, no ray of hope. You want to believe in the redemptive power of art. You want to believe however ugly it got for our heroines art would help them overcome their pain by somehow shining light on their dark places.

It's tragically poetic that while Winehouse or Kane didn't make it...their art did.

City Garage's production of 4.48 Psychosis plays in the Track 16 Gallery at Bergamot Station through September 9.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at KCRW.com/theatre.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Banner image; (L-R) Lena Kouyoumidjian, Cynthia Mance, Justin Davanzo in 4.48 Psychosis. Photo by Justin Davanzo