Author Topic: My Review of the U.S. Cleansed- Steve  (Read 3603 times)

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My Review of the U.S. Cleansed- Steve
« Reply #1 on: August 20, 2007, 11:08:33 PM »
Hi, everybody! Here's a review of the Rude Guerrilla production of Cleansed that I wrote. (It also contains general thoughts about Sarah Kane.) I welcome everyone's feedback, and I hope you enjoy it!


by Steve Omlid

Love’s the only engine of survival. – Leonard Cohen

If I were to tell you that one of the most purely lovely portrayals of the transformative power of love that I’ve ever seen is a play that features a scene where rats gnaw on a torture victim’s foot that has just been cut off with an axe, you’d think I was nuts, right?

Welcome to the theatrical world of Sarah Kane. Kane was a British playwright who wrote five plays – Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Crave, and 4.48 Psychosis – in the mid to late 90s. (She also wrote a ten-minute television play called Skin.) Then, tragically, Kane – who had battled depression for a long time – committed suicide in February 1999. She was only 28.

On one level, Kane’s work is almost unspeakably grim. The first three plays contain horrific scenes of violence, along with plenty of graphic sex and rough language. And, while the last two plays do not contain violence per se – they’re much more abstract, poems for the theater without stage directions (and even, in the case of 4.48 Psychosis, without delineated characters) – they are still suffused with bleakness. Their obvious artistry aside – and Kane was indeed a superb playwright, with a rare sense of language, theatrical form, and historical influence – one almost wonders why one would want to put themselves through this sort of thing.

But there’s something else going on here. There are real ideas at play; Kane was mining this dark stuff for a reason, not just indulging in cheap shock value as her critics alleged. (Blasted, which is arguably her roughest work, almost got her drummed out of the business before her career had even begun. However, she did have her ardent defenders, chief among them the recently knighted theater giant Harold Pinter.) And just as importantly, there are scenes of aching gentleness sprinkled throughout her work. There is hope, a way out, and that way out is love. Yes, the woman responsible for some of the most brutal writing I’ve ever seen was at heart, it seems, a romantic.

This is made quite clear by a superb production of Cleansed (the play’s United States West Coast premiere) now onstage in Orange County, produced by the Rude Guerilla Theater Company. Director Dave Barton (Rude Guerilla’s artistic director) uses great theatrical ingenuity to transcend his company’s modest budget and solve the many staging challenges that the play presents. (Kane’s first three plays are not just difficult in terms of their brutality, but also in that she calls for many things to happen that would seemingly be impossible to stage. However, as David Grieg says in his fine introduction to the published version of Kane’s complete plays, “Kane believed passionately that if it was possible to imagine something, it was possible to represent it.”) But, even more importantly, his production stays sharply focused on the beauty behind the horror in the play. Barton and his collaborators understand Kane, and they do her honor.

Cleansed takes place in a somewhat oblique setting (Kane calls it “a university”, but frankly, if I were in this university, I’d want to be expelled) that functions mainly as a torture house. It is presided over by Tinker (played in the Rude Guerilla production by Jay Fraley), a self-described “doctor” (he wears a white coat and everything) whose chief business is to brutalize and even kill his “patients”. These folks include Grace (Larissa Tidwell), who shares an incestuous love with the ghost of her brother Graham (Scott Caster), a heroin addict who Tinker murders in the play’s first scene with an intentional overdose shot into his eye; Robin (Scott Barber), a delicate boy who exchanges clothes with Grace and then falls in love with her; and Rod and Carl (Bryan Jennings and Stephen Wagner), a gay couple who pay a horrible price for their relationship.

Tinker savages these folks physically and mentally, but it becomes apparent quite soon that he, too, is in terrible pain. (One of the most powerful ideas in the play is that brutality destroys the brutal as well as the brutalized.) His scenes with a peep show dancer (Molly Dewane) reveal that he is even needier than his victims are. And Kane regards him with just as much compassion, and gives him the same capacity for redemption through love.

I don’t want to describe much more of what happens in the play; it’s really better experienced than explained. It’s one of those plays, like Pinter’s Old Times, where the occurrences are simultaneously vivid and oblique. It’s easy to see the specific things – both shockingly brutal and equally shockingly gentle – that are happening, but their context is left up to the audience to figure out. Still, there are definite themes occurring throughout, and one of those is that any joy at all that these characters experience is a direct result of daring to love and be loved. A couple of times during the play, one character says to another, “love me or kill me”. (This phrase is the title of a newly published book on Kane’s work, which I’ve ordered. Like her complete plays, it’s available at For Kane, that seems to be pretty much what it comes down to.

To be sure, it is at times hard to see the light in Kane’s work, because the darkness is so vivid. And I myself have at times made the mistake of seeing Kane as little more than a brilliant downer during my recent examination of her work. (I saw a production of Phaedra’s Love – which is, perversely, simultaneously her funniest and most hopeless work – several years ago in San Francisco. And, reminded of her by the announcement of this production of Cleansed, I picked up a copy of her complete plays. At this writing, I have read Blasted, 4.48 Psychosis, and the first half of Crave.) During a post-show discussion of Cleansed, I made the observation that 4.48 Psychosis – an examination of severe depression and the stunning clarity it sometimes provides – was more or less a “suicide note”. Barton gently disagreed with me, saying that his take was that it was a gift to Kane’s audience, a peek into a way of thinking that they (with any luck) would probably never experience. I had to agree that this was a more nuanced way of looking at it, and that my earlier opinion had been a bit reductive.

(Of course, sadly, an artist’s suicide makes it tempting to see all of their work as a suicide note. F. Kathleen Foley fell victim to this temptation in her L.A. Times review of Cleansed. And certainly, this has happened to many other artists besides Kane. I found it ironic that, at the post-show discussion, Barton was wearing a t-shirt which had on it a picture of Kurt Cobain, another great artist whose art has often been reduced to a suicide note.)

But it is Barton’s production of Cleansed that really made me re-examine my earlier take on Kane’s work. As arresting as the stylized images of brutality are in this production (a special nod should go to puppeteers Peter Balgoyen and Katarina Yeo, who effectively realize the aforementioned rats), I think what I’m going to really remember are the gentler moments, especially the three scenes of graphic but exquisitely tender and intimate lovemaking. (And yes, that’s what Kane calls it in her stage directions, “making love”, not “having sex” or “f*cking”.) As focused as the work by the uniformly first-rate cast is throughout, and as fiercely committed as they are to the violence and ugliness in the play, it is undoubtedly in the play’s most loving and beautiful moments where their work is the bravest.

Now, obviously, if Kane was a romantic – and I submit that, on a very fundamental level, she was – she was hardly a starry-eyed idealist. Love does not conquer all in Cleansed; people die, and die brutally, and those who survive are often scarred, both literally and figuratively. And, at the risk of over-emphasizing Kane’s suicide in terms of her art, it is worth noting that whatever love she felt in her life (in a quote used as a program note, she says that she was “completely and utterly in love” while writing this play) was not enough to save her from her final, desperate act.

But to me, the most compelling message of Cleansed is that, to the extent that we can be saved at all, it’s love that’s going to do it. Also, I’m reminded of something someone once said about Kurt Cobain (sorry, I can’t remember who said it); it was something to the effect that, despite his tragic end, “I still like to think his life was saved by rock and roll”. Similarly, my hope is that, on some level, the stunning work that Sarah Kane produced – and the great love that, for all its brutality, can be found in it – left her feeling cleansed.

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