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OC REgister Review of "Cleansed" RGTC
« Reply #1 on: August 20, 2007, 11:13:47 PM »
June 21, 2002

'Cleansed' awash in love, hatred STAGE: Rude Guerrilla explicitly shows the ambiguity of British playwright Sarah Kane.

By ERIC MARCHESE For the Register

The No. 1 subject of popular songs has always been love and how it makes the heart soar ... and the flip side of love - how much it hurts.

Taken at one level, "Cleansed" is a pop song about love's joys and heartaches, acted out on stage. But Sarah Kane's 1998 play, with its graphic and often hideous violence, can be taken at many levels and interpreted in any number of ways - a trait underscored by the playwright's stream-of-consciousness style.

If you're over 17 and not squeamish about acts of sex or violence unfolding before your eyes, see for yourself at The Empire Theater in downtown Santa Ana's Artists Village, where the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company is giving the play its West Coast premiere.

This isn't just a regional premiere, either: Rude Guerrilla is only the second U.S. theater company to stage "Cleansed." The disturbing implications of the play aren't the only reason the troupes on our shores have shied away from the work. The burden of fleshing out the script's minimalism in terms of dialogue is placed on the director and cast, while the often-daunting special effects (among these, rats gnawing at body parts) are another hurdle.

"Cleansed" is set in the various locales of an abandoned university - the library, the health clinic, and the sports hall and its shower stalls, which have been converted into a peep show - in an unnamed country that could be Bosnia. The deliberately vague scenic design, by Dawn Hess, resembles a ghetto - or, possibly, a prison camp (suggested by costume designer Molly Dewane's blue uniforms). Director and set designer Dave Barton paints a large "ES-3" near the ceiling of the health clinic, implying that the setting may be a mental institution (Kane dedicated the play to the staff and patients of ES-3, the mental ward at Maudsley Hospital in south London).

The play basically tells of how two couples trapped in this grimy, lifeless world cling to love as the only thing worth living for. But Kane isn't going to let us off the hook with conventional love stories.

The first couple, Rod and Carl, are gay. Carl wants the storybook love that lasts forever. Rod's the realist who doesn't deny their love; he levels with Carl that he can't honestly say he'll always feel the same way.

The other couple are Grace and Graham, siblings whose incestuous affection intensifies after Graham fatally overdoses on heroin at the start of the play. From that point on, the psyche of the lovesick Grace gradually merges with that of her dead brother as his spirit hovers over her. Meantime, the sickly youth Robin, forced to wear Grace's dress (the only clothing he can find), has begun to fall in love with her.

The figure that connects these stories is a hateful character known only as Tinker. He seems part commandant, part warden, part mad scientist. In truth, he's all, and also none, of these. Like every other character in "Cleansed," Tinker craves love more than anything. When spurned by Grace, he takes his wrath out on her, on Robin and most viciously on Carl, all the while trying to connect with, then pulling back from, a stripper who inhabits the shower stalls.

The maimings, electro shock therapy and psychological cruelty, drawn from years of news headlines, have been shown in far more cavalier fashion in the cinema world than in Kane's sobering depictions here. Barton stylizes the violence: Blood streaming from limbs or orifices is represented by flowing red ribbons, and when a character's throat is slit, our attention is directed to the shower stalls, lighted in blood red as we hear water running down the drain. Rats are depicted Bunraku style, as puppets (operated by Peter Balgoyen and Katarina Yeo).

The love scenes, while equally graphic, are tender and understated, underscored by romantic music by such contemporary composers as Philip Glass and Mark Isham.

Bryan Jennings' Rod is dour and reserved, awakening to love's healing powers late in the play. As Carl, essentially a chopping block for Tinker's nearly psychotic malice, Stephen Wagner's face registers shock with each new affront to his body. At times, his silent, frozen screams resemble the death's-head represented in that masterpiece by painter Edvard Munch, "The Scream."

Scott Barber's Robin is a pale, scrawny innocent in way over his head. As the nameless stripper, Dewane epitomizes the dichotomy of the play: physically, she's voluptuous, while emotionally, she's vulnerable.

Jay Fraley's Tinker lacks the ambiguity that makes audiences puzzle over the character. Tinker's yearning side is clear, expressed as furious petulance (he's even furious when he masturbates, shown by Fraley's ritual act of whipping back his necktie, then spitting into his palm). But though Tinker's acts of violence are shocking, Fraley seems more indifferent than an emotionally confused figure of bravado. Our stance toward the character isn't love-hate; it's lukewarm detestation.

The focal point of Barton's staging is Larissa Tidwell's portrayal of Grace. After losing Graham, her racking sobs are deep and genuine. Her Grace is a calm, quiet psyche resigned to the colorless uncertainty of her existence. Grace's love for Graham is restrained, and even after turned mute and robotic from beatings, rape and torture, she can't mask the character's need to nurture.

Though his is a relatively small role, Scott Caster's Graham speaks volumes. His violent seizures, and gratitude toward Tinker for helping him shoot up, evoke our pity. After death, his calm facial expressions resemble Tidwell's, and the scene where he and Grace function as each other's mirror images speaks volumes about Kane's ideas regarding love.

Archive 3-7-2002
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