That playwright Sarah Kane looked on the world as a pretty bleak place was confirmed by her 1999 suicide (at the young age of 28). But her dark worldview had already been laid bare in a small but lasting oeuvre of shocking but emotionally honest theater: her musical equivalent would be somewhere between the dark artist commitment of Elliot Smith and the equally sincere shock value of GG Allin. She is now receiving her first full production on a Philadelphia stage as Luna Theater Company presents her brutally intense first play, Blasted.
The lights rise to a well-appointed hotel room in the north of England (convincing set design by Dirk Durossette). Ian (John Jezior), a Welsh-born Yorkshireman with a drinking problem and smoking-caused cancer of the lungs, is trying to seduce his simple-minded ex-girlfriend, Cate (Haley McCormick). It would be a stretch to call the scene a view of normal life; but the characters are at least dysfunctional residents of the everyday world.
That the hotel is in a city ravished by war is barely hinted at: room service is still fully functional, champagne is on the dresser ready for an absent celebration.
But when the violence of the room — witnessed in Ian’s racist and misogynistic comments and his seen and implied sexual threats — becomes intertwined with the social destruction outside, the transition seems hauntingly easy. The war intrudes in the form of a hardened Soldier (Jerry Rudasill), whose graphic descriptions of rape and torture soon give way to extreme onstage depictions of the same, challenging and transfixing the audience in a way theater seldom does.
It is not clear whether the transition between a dysfunctional normalcy with it’s quotidian misogynistic violence and the desperate brutality of a wartime society takes place over the course of a day or several months. The uncertain proximity of social collapse is what gives Blasted its power. We are just a couple generations removed from the horrors of world war; the genocide, mass rape, and indiscriminate killings of modern war are just an ocean away. Kane urges us to ask: How close is our world of mundane asocial behavior from a cannibalistic anarchy?
Blasted premiered in London in 1995 and was greeted by the British tabloids with a reception like that which U.S. conservatives gave the 1987 photograph Piss Christ, which depicted a plastic Jesus on a cross submerged in the artist’s urine. Critics accused Kane, as they falsely accused photographer Andre Serrano, of peddling shock for shocks sake. Blasted is difficult to watch, and this production, masterly directed by Gregory Scott Campbell and with uniformly strong acting, seems a faithful realization of the author’s intent. But it is carried by an emotional sincerity throughout, and by a powerfully contained but never overt message.
Applause was muted at the end of a packed-house opening night, but that was no reflection on the quality of the performance. The play leaves viewers emotionally drained. It was written when the author was in her early twenties, and there’s certainly a chance that some of the chronological vagaries, inconsistencies in plot, and over-the-top violence might be the result of the playwright’s immaturity. Regardless, it is one of the most powerful pieces I’ve seen produced. It’s difficult to recommend such a brutally difficult work, but it’s must-see.
Blasted, by Sarah Kane
Luna Theater Company
UpStairs at the Adrienne
Through Feb. 26th
Published by Philly2Philly.