Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
Sarah Kane was a ferocious playwright who brought to the theatre an innovative gift for language, sophisticated theatricality, and a bleak but passionate vision of a world in which pain and injury are the usual responses to need and desire. With her suicide at the age of 28, she inevitably became linked with doomed young artists like the poet Sylvia Plath, whose trajectory of genius and demise seems to have an inevitability rich in both romanticism and futility. Unfortunately, that categorizing tends to color all of Kane's work, and especially for a play like "Crave", it distorts the vitality of a world in which existence does not have an easy exit, and the ongoing nature of being is presumptive to the struggle.
In an intense and exhausting fifty minutes, this rarely produced drama displays all of Kane's verbal brilliance, her anguish, sexual torment, spiritual despair and theatrical precision. Washington Ensemble Theatre, the most innovative and important art theatre in Seattle, gives it an exemplary production. The inventive and insightful direction of Roger Bennington is matched by an impeccable set design by Jennifer Zeyl, and the four talented actors of the cast express all of the sound and physicality, the desperation and hunger and fear of the text.
"I wish I had music, but all I have is words," says one of the characters, each identified only by a letter. But what words, and from them, what music. The production begins with the stage masked top and bottom by a black strip, so that our perception is physically narrowed, our attention forced deeper inside the box where the characters are enclosed. The four individuals are frozen in tableaux, while the lights rise slowly, almost imperceptibly, in silence. With the first words, and the illumination of white, harshly textured walls, white costumes, the room is filled with sound; ceaseless, yearning, bitter, articulate and howling, grasping at meaning, demanding answers that will not be delivered, attempting connections that are painfully impossible. Each voice is distinct, but not individualized. The text reveals less about any personal experience than the emotive experience of this immediate event.
The play was originally conceived as a static event, but Bennington has given it constant movement, adding a gestural language and kinetic theatricality to the swirling broth of Kane's speech. Certainly there is much of the existential legacy of Beckett and Sartre in her words and ideas, and much of Artaud and Arrabal in this production's theatricality. But there is also a genuine and lyric voice in this desolate and demanding poetry, a passionate need for meaning and connection between people that is no less insistent even for the certainty that it will forever be denied. While the fatalism and nihilism of her belief system may be a difficult argument to make, sometimes just the sheer, blinding intensity of the statement is enough. The cast, Mikano Fukaya, Marya Sea Kaminski, Marc Kenison and Lathrop Walker, balance and support each other beautifully, while remaining essentially and effectively separate, nonetheless connecting and relating continually. Mr. Kenison performs an exhausting, breathtaking solo speech that plays like Coltrane at three a.m. Ms. Fukaya wears a mask of raw nerves as thin and vulnerable as her white slip, remaining tender even as she's being ravaged and demeaned. Ms. Kaminski carries a clear-eyed awareness and wounded humanity that feels timeless and archetypal. Mr. Walker expresses an anguish that feels like an image from Dore's illustrations of Dante, and an unfeeling cruelty that is both chilling and self-damning. Throughout, the precision and clarity of the expression, kinetic, aural and visual, is damn near perfect.
If one reason that we go to the theatre is to encounter an authentic expression of the human experience, then "Crave" is an important and powerful piece of work. On an intellectual, cognitive level, I think there are a good many arguments to be made against its beliefs and conclusions. Certainly some of the later religious implications of baptisms and resurrections and such seemed a bit strained. But if you turn off your own words, listen only to the expression coming from the stage in all its forms, then the work is, or at least was for me, powerfully affecting. "Poetry is language for its own sake," a voice says from the stage. And so the reason for this text. "...A horror so deep only ritual can contain it," says another. And so the reason for this theatrical event. In the conviction and urgency of the whole there is a terrible beauty, and unarguable, self-referential truth, be it only Sarah Kane's. Fearful. Pitiable. Great stuff.