The short life of Sarah Kane is one of those stories that are equal parts artistic legend and unredeemable tragedy. An aspiring actress, Kane gradually turned her attention to playwriting while studying drama at Bristol University. Her first major work was Blasted, a show reviled by critics as obscene and gratuitously violent and praised by the artistic community as bold and complex. She would complete four more works — Cleansed, Phaedra’s Love, Skin and Crave — before losing her battle with depression and committing suicide at the age of 28.
It is Kane’s play Crave that Signature Theatre has selected as the inaugural work for its new black box theater, The Ark. Nonlinear though meticulously choreographed, Crave is a barrage of language, sound and physicality. It dares you to dislike it, striking a defiant pose and asserting its bullying artistic temperament by ignoring such apparently pedestrian concerns as accessibility and, truly, audience enjoyment.
The production begins by plunging the audience into complete darkness while covering them with an intricate quilt of sound. A tumult of cell phone rings and snatches of conversation, sound designer Mark Anduss has created a gem of theater craft. High marks must also go to lighting designer Dan Covey and scenic designer Tony Cisek for their remarkable framing of this difficult work.
When the lights come up, each member of the four person cast has perched themselves, one on each side, of the raised black sand-covered square that forms the show’s stage. The actors emerge from the darkness with a sharp intake of breath, as though the blackness they have been submerged in is a tangible, suffocating thing.
For audience and actors this is the last moment of silence. Crave is a nonstop assault with the unnamed cast members weaving and unweaving a story that involves an affair between an older man and a younger woman, an older woman trying to convince a young male stranger to impregnate her, memories of childhood sexual assault and the gradual dissolve of a marriage.
But the plot, and this term perhaps needs to be used extremely loosely, unfolds not as a narrative but in chaotic splashes and messy spurts. It is an abstraction rather than an impression. A jazz-like improvisation using snatches of dialogue where the violent bleat of a trumpet should be.
When considering the show, it is important to carefully divide Signature’s production of Crave, separating the baby from the bathwater as it were.
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Director Jeremy Skidmore has assembled a cast that is disciplined and, in the material they are given, largely successful. Deborah Hazlett delivers a particularly nuanced performance as she sharply and cleanly manages the emotional obstacle course required of her role. John Lescault periodically brings forth a dry, almost professorial delivery, making some of the play’s humor possible. The talent of Kathleen Coons and Joe Isenberg is evident, though both tend to slip into a workmanlike pattern, as if executing a series of unconnected acting exercises rather than performing a fully comprehensive work.
And this is the central question concerning Crave. Is it a fully comprehensive work or simply a series of theatrical exercises meant only for those audiences ”educated” enough to understand them?
The reality is that Crave labors under its own weight. Overly complicated, obsessively knotted and uninterested in whether it leaves its audience behind, the play is ultimately selfish and self-centered. It is disappointing to see a group of actors working so very hard in a space that has so much potential on a work that feels created solely for its own pleasure and edification.