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Blasting away at Shotgun Players
2017-09-29
 

 

In yer face theater 

If we were to draw a Venn Diagram with two intersecting circles, one representing a set called sex and the other representing a set called violence, the place where they overlap would include Blasted, a play by British playwright Sarah Kane, which opened this weekend at Shotgun Players. This is not to say that play and performance are without virtues.

The play opens in a hotel room, a parody of minimalist elegance, somewhere in the north of England. An older man and a younger woman, who were once lovers, meet. She because she heard unhappiness in his voice when he called; he because he believes he loves her and he wants her physically. He is packing a gun in a shoulder holster.

What happens between them is sordid and difficult to follow. Neither character knows his or her self. Ian is a journalist who reports on serial murders, and who wanders the room as if caged and waiting for attack. His sense of love is his need for sex that is stripped of affection and tenderness. A bleak direct demand is his form of foreplay. Cate is less well defined in her place in the world. We know she has moved on to another lover, and that she feels concern for Ian. But when confronted by his demands she starts to scream, her screams somewhere between laughter and fear. Finally, she collapses in a neurological fit. Even so she ends up in bed with Ian, and a victim of his sexual violence.

Although locked in the hotel room together, the two are imposed upon by an even more volatile and destructive world. A war, it seems, has erupted. After a blackout the play opens up on a destroyed hotel room, the back wall is collapsed, what looks like dirt or bits of burnt construction are scattered everywhere. A yellow light is cast on the ruins. Cate escapes to the bath. And a soldier enters the bedroom, bringing with him even more terrifying forms of violence. Ian becomes his victim.

In this play dialog is minimal and action extreme. Written in response to the Serbo-Croatian genocide, with actions that were described in war testimony and real life accounts, the play works to expose the unthinkable cruelties of life that are seldom experienced by people who go to the theater but are regular fare in conflict zones globally.

In the best of circumstances it’s a hard play to stage. And as far as they were able the cast and production team did a terrific job. Director Jon Tracy had many hard decisions to make but kept the action focused and moving. Robert Parsons was a chilly Ian and Adrienne Walters a dazed Cate. But both were hampered by the script, which is so severe in its terseness that each line falls like a broken doll into silence. Trying to assume British accents to fit the play’s colloquial language was also a problem. Although most Americans are familiar with the received pronunciation of Downton Abbey, nailing a regional British accent is a hard one, and both player’s slipped in and out of indefinable pronunciations.

It is Joe Estlack, however, who most assumes his role as The Soldier, putting forth an utterly convincing portrayal of the violent militaristic mind necessary to rape and kill. With his appearance the play takes on an undeniable momentum, careening toward more and greater transgressions.

My problem with the play is that it never seemed to settle between realism, surrealism or allegory, though it played with all three forms. Details of the action made it hard to credit it as realism, though it strove for that in the playwright’s desire to be convincing. It also lacked the frisson of dream, or nightmare, that is the backbone of surrealistic irony. And the reduction of the players to three potential danced a little too closely to allegorical types. The result was that the mounting transgressions moved into the predictable, which made them susceptible to being read as gratuitous. Nonetheless, my sympathies are with the playwright’s and I salute the validity of her intentions. Was the play strong enough to support its content overriding an approach that elided formal conventions? Hard to tell. Only time will tell, for at this point in the play's history, Kane's personal life in mixed too vividly with the intentions of her writing.   

 

In 1999, the 28-year-old Sarah Kane committed suicide. Clearly she carried a heavy burden. Blasted is one of five plays that she finished before her death.

– Jaime Robles

 

Shotgun Players’ production of Blasted continues through October 22 at The Ashby Stage in Berkeley. For information and tickets, visit shotgunplayers.org.

Photo: Joe Estlack as The Soldier and Robert Parsons as Ian in Blasted at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.

 
     
   
 
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