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    Marin Ireland and Reed Birney in Blasted. in Blasted
    Photo by Simon Kane
    Marin Ireland and Reed Birney in "Blasted."

    Sex and Violence

    SoHo Rep gives Sarah Kane's extraordinary, brutal "Blasted" an extraordinary, brutal New York premiere.


    It's impossible, once a writer commits suicide, to deal with their work outside of this fact. Suicide settles over a writer's characters and ideas like a patina that colors every word and detail. What was once fresh and current is abruptly stopped in its tracks and assigned to the past tense, a literary evolution that (however prematurely) has abruptly arrived at its conclusion, passing through pearly gates into the canon. And with the recent death of David Foster Wallace, the tabloid impulse to view the artist's life and work as sustaining some sort of dialogue, one that offers corresponding clues to the understanding of their work, has renewed. And yet, I can't say that the temptation to understand an author's work through the prism of their death is an altogether invalid one. Self-annihilation is an act of theatrical proportion, one that sends a jolt through the lives of those affected. It has a sort of artistic significance in itself; one that in some cases (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton) emphasizes the authenticity of the work, while in other cases (Hemingway, Woolf) is merely a biographical issue. With that said, it is more interesting to me to think about the plays of Sarah Kane outside the context of her suicide, without self-consciously shunning any influence it may have.

    Company: Soho Repertory Theatre.
    Written by: Sarah Kane.
    Directed by: Sarah Benson.
    Cast: Reed Birney, Louis Cancelmi & Marin Ireland.
    Sound design by: Matt Tierney.
    Set design by: Louisa Thompson.
    Costumes by: Theresa Squire.
    Lighting design by: Tyler Micoleau.
    Production stage manager: Danielle Monica Long.
    Props Master: Sarah Bird.
    Technical Director: Billy Burns.

    Related links: Official site
    Soho Repertory Theatre
    46 Walker St., bet. Broadway & Church
    Oct. 2 - Dec. 21, 2008

    Sarah Kane's "Blasted" is undoubtedly one of the most unique theatrical experiences I have ever had. By itself it manages to call into question what we think of when we describe a "satisfying" evening of theater. "Blasted" is intermittently interesting, upsetting, boring, and deeply frightening. It is far from being the most compelling drama I've ever seen, and could not be called "enjoyable" by anyone but a masochist. Indeed, it is not meant to be enjoyable; it's an assault on the sensibilities of the captive audience of bourgeois and hipster alike, an adrenaline trigger that makes sitting in voyeuristic passivity almost embarrassing and absurd. It is theater as haunted funhouse, where the impulse to look away is not always accompanied by the corresponding impulse to keep staring. It's a vengeance play enacted upon the world that it depicts, an act of uncompromising psychic exhibitionism that, either by design or accident, withholds ultimate catharsis, not unlike the way Ian complains of Cate's withholding sex.

    Sarah Kane's "Blasted" is undoubtedly one of the most unique theatrical experiences I have ever had. By itself it manages to call into question what we think of when we describe a "satisfying" evening of theater.  

    A middle-aged man and a young woman enter an expensive hotel room, the type that could exist anyplace in the world. The action then proceeds by a somewhat conventional playbook: a sexual power struggle between a lecherous old guy and the ripe young thing who naively trusts him. For the first hour of "Blasted," Kane amps up the nihilism to a point of cruelty that, alas, has been well mined. The American theater canon alone is a keg party of poignant junkies and memorable sadists. Audiences are well-versed in the kind of unmitigated boozing and sexual meanness that goes on between Ian and Cate. Imagine "Lost in Translation" if a drunk Bill Murray had spent his entire sojourn pressuring, guilt tripping and mind-fucking Scarlett Johansson into having sex with him, and you basically have the first half of "Blasted." The difference, of course, is that Ian and Cate are not strangers passing in the night; they have a past, and a familiarity with one another's families. The implication that this relationship verges on pedophilia and possible incest is only heightened by Cate's child-like limitations. Her "fits," she explains, came on when her Dad returned. What we're to make of this and other references are left entirely to us.

    It's in the limbo of the second act where Kane takes all the theatrical conventions of the first half and deals out her pay-offs like Molotov cocktails, landing one after another upon the stage. Even the introduction of a gun in the first few minutes of the play is turned from a cliché into a complex motif of violence, rape, and ultimate mercy. The play even seems to pay a nod to Sophocles at one point! But "Blasted" is not only a play about theater. It is also a highly complex, often incoherent, meditation on the moralities of wartime, and the power of sexual violence. Throughout the play, sex is associated with distaste, ridicule and horror. Even in the one instance where sex is associated with love, it is simultaneously complicated by rape, torture and necrophiliac transference. Sex is never natural and uncomplicated and, by extension, neither is love. Kane's Ian is treated somewhat like SNL's classic "Mr. Bill" but without the schadenfreude. And Cate is the bloodied and defiled angel of redemption.

      It's in the limbo of the second act where Kane takes all the theatrical conventions of the first half and deals out her pay-offs like Molotov cocktails, landing one after another upon the stage.
    The phenomenal production currently playing at Soho Rep boasts what has to be the greatest coup de theater since the falling chandeliers in "Phantom." The set and lighting design are spot on. The sound, the props and costumes all testify to the incredible thoughtfulness that went into the project. The cast is also uniformly good, with Reed Birney having the unenviable task of giving life to Ian's assholery, while also having to make sense of the odd superfluities that Kane tacks on to his character. So much of the mystery of his occupation seems ultimately pointless, and the question of what/why/how come is often left dangling. Marin Ireland as Cate, and Louis Cancelmi as Soldier, are brilliant in their respective roles, finding the right balance between victim and victimizer. I cannot imagine how these three get through this play night after night.

    As staged, "Blasted" occasionally suffers from a failure to build upon events to create momentum or a sense of progression. And the staccato blackouts at the end fail to hit the right note, and come across as heavy-handed and even amusing. There's no thread of logic that runs straight through the play either. Instead, Kane offers a brave and fierce visceral journey that defies coherence. The production follows Kane's play to the letter, and mostly meets the challenge of striking the right tone throughout. However, the humor in the play didn't always register, which is not entirely surprising. Sarah Kane's plays are so bleak, so perverse, so sensationally cruel, that even the real instances of human kindness she depicts are exploited and displaced.

    OCTOBER 13, 2008

    Reader comments on Blasted:

  • review of Sarah Kane's "Blasted"   from Elspeth Macdonald, May 6, 2009

  • Post a comment on "Blasted"