By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
“Blasted,” as a word, draws a picture in the mind. More than most other words, which may simply exist as ways to communicate quickly or as storage containers for current topics, “blasted” can be a verb, an adjective, a curse, or slang for a state of intoxication. You can hear its German roots in a guttural “A” from the ancient past.
That this word, as a blanket expression of destruction, has survived with little change for a millennium and a half is one of many clues that our species is flawed. None of us has a perfect form: we may grow ill, we will die, we may commit a trespass without intention or knowing. There have been those who have stolen out of spite, or desperation. The earliest of us killed another, and we have built compounds to house those who continue to kill into today, tomorrow, and next year. Millions of pages, assemblies, speeches, and debates have tried to describe what our flaws are, why they are important, and what, if anything, can be done to solve them. It is hard to look at ourselves in the mirror and address our failings as a species: our arrogance, ignorance, apathy. Sometimes the more perceptive artists of our time have to make a reminder of how our deficits are fleshing out history.
So Defunkt Theatre is presenting the late Sarah Kane’s Blasted in its continuing love affair with in-yer-face theatre and cutting-edge performances. This time around, the theater has new chairs and a box office, but true to Defunkt style, the space remains intimate and does its part for the play by leaving little room for the issues in the show to be avoided. Defunkt does its best to bring important but seldom popular issues to the table. Psychologically, the audience can’t bow out. Trigger warning: Blasted has two overt and other implied rape scenes, cannibalism, and an infant death. This isn’t a free-for-all Tarantino bloodbath. It’s about bringing the horrors of a foreign war to our shores, to our homes, and showing us what it’s like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.
If the agenda that Kane brings to the page makes you cringe a bit – no one likes to be preached to – her plays are more a study in intricate ideas. How sex can be cathartic, loving, brutal, manipulative, tender, bought. How gender can reinforce victimization, and how victims might escape through fantasy. Kane peppers her metaphors with allusions to the Ancient Greeks: losing sight, epilepsy as a stand-in for Cassandra’s psychic fits, children as sacrifices of war. By the end of her short, meteoric, powerful career – she died by hanging herself with her shoelaces in 1999, at age 28 – she tested the boundaries of what a play is.
Defunkt’s actors Elizabeth Parker and Matt Smith appear on stage at first as a couple in promise of a sexual liaison in a middle-class hotel. By the end of Blasted their characters have been pushed to the edges of their psychological limits, and the bow the performers take is part shudder, part exhaustion. Friday night’s audience shuffled from the theatre as if they had run a marathon, the lactic acid calcifying not in their leg muscles, but in their brains. Defunkt tears you down to build you up.
Ian (Smith) is a British tabloid journalist dying from lung cancer who invites his former, and much younger, lover Cate (Parker) to a hotel in Leeds. The room has the opulence of furniture better than they could afford, but not the kind that people with real money would buy. Max Ward’s set is exactly what you would expect to see at a Hilton or Marriott. Cate enters the room with an impish smile and the looks of a younger Claire Danes, though her ginger hair is under-lighted with some teal. She has a nose ring, tattoo, and toe ring. Her worn-looking green sweater has collected little balls of lint. Her jeans are the close-fitting, sexy, designer kind. Ian has an overgrown mop of curly hair that seems to be filled with sweat. His chest is sunken in: he postures his masculinity over and over, but he’s a fragment of a man. Ian is pouring highball after highball of straight Bombay Gin down his throat and pulling wrinkled cigarette packs from his shirt pockets to chain-smoke with his drinks. Smith captures this over-aged paranoid predator to a T.
Running through Defunkt’s production is water – showers, baths, the sound of rain. By the end of the performance the high-pitched clink of a drop hitting a flat surface is loud and distorted: it hurts your ears. The idea of the ritual cleansing, the purity of a brilliant and necessary element, is transformed into something useless against a tide of blood. Ceremony and catastrophe alike, through time, can be made vacant and meaningless. Gordon Romei’s sound design, which is instrumental to the production’s effectiveness, slowly creeps up on you like a stranger in a dark alley. Cassie Skauge’s lighting design plays the part of a curtain, which reveals and closes us off from moment to moment. Short periods of uncomfortable darkness create another dimension to the room and sets a timing to the play. The show embodies director Paul Angelo’s expertise at weaving the collaborative work behind a play into a well-crafted and cohesive work.
The beginning of Blasted is a sexual power struggle between Cate and Ian, in which the rounds are arguments in social convention and manners. He’s racist, sexist, nationalist, all the “ists.” Cate, though she’s traded off some of her innocence earlier with him, is still full of hope: as wholesome as a partly eaten apple. He wants her to sleep with him, because he’s dying, and she’s the only thing that takes away his misery. She distrusts and dislikes sex: it’s dirty, it is intimate. Blasted asks early on if social conventions are the root of violence; if, by following the rules, we repress a greater array of emotions and thoughts, which eventually dislodge and erupt chaotically.
Clifton Holznagel returns to Defunkt’s stage as the soldier, a wild-haired guerrilla fighter, who is reminiscent of Che Guevara in his last days – long into battle; a disheveled, desperate veneer to a once clean-cut and handsome figure. It’s not clear that the soldier belongs to a unit any more: he may be a renegade unleashing his own battles. The play has a vertical crescendo; civilization dies quickly. Holznagel’s scenes are among the most intense of the play. He and Smith create a heart-wrenching and realistic study of one person stripping away another person’s life, layer by layer, in an articulate, calculated, but senseless and randomly vicious exercise.
Kane committed suicide after years of struggling with depression. A running theme throughout Blasted and her other plays is a romantic inquiry into death; a lavish intellectual foreknowledge of personal violence. Ian’s death is prolonged by cancer, the abuse by the soldier, starvation, and deprivation. Cate’s deaths are short: she blacks out in fits and can’t remember living during that time. Her idealism and purity are easy capital, and the loss of her identity permanent. Cate succumbs to hunger and trades her body for food. Ian, now begging her to kill him, says: “Rescue or punish me, Cate. It makes no difference.” She brings him food and pours liquor into his mouth, as he rests in a grave he placed himself into. After finishing his last meal, he says his last two words. The double-edged sword of all our human trappings rises again like a phoenix in Kane’s poetic dialogue with a simple: “Thank you.”
Blasted continues through March 19 at Defunkt. Ticket and schedule information here.