Internal thoughts becoming external cues

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“4:48 Psychosis.” Photo credit: Matt Kamimura

It’s not that often that stunning design is the reason to go see LA’s intimate theatre.

It’s not that we don’t have talented designers - we do. But … it’s a resource issue. \Constrained budgets often lead to constrained imaginations… and we have such an abundance of another resource: actors, many of them talented, that productions usually let the acting provide the wow factor. That’s where the directors attention goes and design often feels like a supporting player.

But design is really the reason to go see Son of Semele’s production of Sarah Kane’s play “4:48 Psychosis.”

The play is a notoriously open ended affair. There are no characters named. No stage directions beyond parenthetical requests for (silence).

It’s also a text about a woman struggling with psychosis and clinical depression. It’s been talked about as a suicide note of a play. The text makes clear that “objective reality” is open for question.

Director Matt McCray embraces this challenge and crafts a visually stunning, if horrifying world in Son of Semele’s tiny shoebox theatre. It’s clear from the opening moments that light and projections are going to shape this world. Lighting designer Matthew Richter brilliantly transforms the space and the text by treating the lighting as both a scenic element and a symbolic force. LED panels hang over the space evoking institutional fluorescent fixtures but once they serve this simple purpose they begin to shift from an expected color palette to something more ominous. LED tubes that started as wall sconces are removed and wielded by the actors as glowing halos and weapons.

And it’s not just lighting: Corwin Evans’ projections and Daniel Gower’s sound design are so tightly knit with the lighting that as our protogonist’s psychosis develops and her world slips away, we in the audience feel the space assaulting the character: internal thoughts become external cues.

I’d love to tell you the rest of the production achieved this level. While Mr. McCray creates a richly designed world - the acting is another story.

“4:48 Psychosis” is a difficult, difficult play. Sarah Kane’s writing has a brutality and rawness that demands, like Beckett, a razor sharp precision from the actors. At this extremity of human experience, one can’t fake it.

Mr. McCray has cast a small ensemble of actors to surround our protagonist and her doctor. These women begin as a sort of abstraction of our protagonists depression: as if they each embodied a different facet of her struggle - or perhaps were there representing all the others who suffer from the same disease. In the early moments of the play, this makes some sense but as we progress further in the illness and the play, this communal approach begins to feel cluttered and muddy. It’s hard to escape the isolation of suicidal thoughts and where the design elements succeed in externalizing the internal trauma, this ensemble distracts from the crushing despair at the play’s heart.

“4:48 Psychosis” plays at Son of Semele through November 3rd.