Sunday, February 17, 2013

Review: (Toronto) 4:48 Psychosis

Bruce Godfree, Laura Condlln, Raven Dauda (Photo: J Lauener)
Laughing at death
Psychosis cures all
by Jason Booker

Sarah Kane’s final work before ending her own life, 4:48 Psychosis, is often compared to a suicide note, meaning performances of the work are typically bleak, bleak and more bleak.  In tackling the piece for Necessary Angel, director Vikki Anderson mysteriously though mercifully discovers the dark humour within depression, embracing the “desperately absurd” act of performing hopelessness and despair. 

To laugh in the face of death is brave but Anderson demands it here.  She uses comedy to deflect the unbearable nature of Kane’s bitter biting words.  The vision of this production is not to stage a suicide but to investigate the manic nature of depression, question a few of the major causes or cures like religion or medication and truly wonder if anyone can connect with or understand the people going through this misery.  Through employing humour, Anderson demonstrates why the piece takes over an hour to perform instead of simply offing the lead in the first five minutes: because the play is about having to continue living in the face of adversity.  For a person to slip into a suicidal state does not happen overnight, it can take weeks of fading away and falling apart, months of riding a roller-coaster of emotions, which Necessary Angel’s production captures brilliantly.

Confusion to frustration, anguish to hope, Condlln crawls inside the in-yer-face style of the piece firmly into her character’s head.

A clue to the amusing nature of the production lies in the delivery of “Nothing will interfere with your work like suicide.”  Just watch how Anderson has made the line amusing and meta-theatrical. The desperate absurdity of 4:48 Psychosis also manifests in an exaggerated game-show of symptoms and the dance of the pharmaceuticals performed by the actors playing the lead character’s shoulder angel and devil.

Written in vignettes, the dialogue in the play is not assigned to parts nor is the number of actors specified.  Anderson chose three performers to give voice to the piece: a lead that seems to represent playwright Kane, an unspecified lover and the most sympathetic (though somewhat androgynous) doctor the writer would encounter – however both lover and doctor double as hallucinatory figures and personifications of ideation as well. 

Laura Condlln as the lead is phenomenal, embodying the listlessness of depression through every detail: how her grey sweater droops away from her figure or how she shuffles about the stage.  When hugged by her lover (Bruce Godfree), the audience can see her discomfort as the life in her drains away, slumping and slouching while her expressions makes the soul ache.  Confusion to frustration, anguish to hope, Condlln crawls inside the in-yer-face style of the piece firmly into her character’s head.

As the third point of the triangle, Raven Dauda’s Mephistophelean doctor coaxes and charms before putting her bent knee and arched hip into the reality that your doctor cannot be your friend.

While the play morbidly reminisces about mortality, the movement around the crumbling wooden bleachers of set designer Yannik Larivée expertly balances the challenging and broken text with a steady visual.  Anderson’s direction ensures that there is always a poignant moment to observe when the text becomes a barrage of the overwhelming or obscure, whether through her silent battle of wills over pill bottles, the underscoring of John Gzowski’s haunting soundscape or the use of Bonnie Beecher’s fantastic lighting.  Beecher paints the actors in unimaginable ways using every tool she could imagine from shadow to gobo, tight pin-spots and haze, even lighting the underside of the set, in order to echo the sometimes functional and often paralyzing feeling of not wanting to live any more.

Offering a mirror for the audience to gaze into, the conclusion of the play suggests hope through an onstage baptism with water as the sign of rebirth – life in the face of death.  While the humourous tone of this staging may seem at odds with the dire vocabulary that Kane wrote, even the playwright knew that in order to explore the depths of the ocean, sometimes you have to take the audience on a pleasure cruise.

4:48 Psychosis continues until February 23 2013 at the Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre

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