For those theatre-goers wanting a jaunty escape from the daily grind of everyday life, Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis may not be for you. This bluntly dark and poetic play, which largely dispenses with narrative and whose primary characters are a suicidal writer and her callous doctor, is a far cry from, say, Driving Miss Daisy. It is a clear-eyed look at a person whose ship is sinking very rapidly, and, in the last-minute carelessness that accompanies her complete loss of hope, it is a message in a bottle, thrown overboard for anyone who cares to look at it.
4.48 Psychosis has been called Sarah Kane’s theatrical suicide note – and indeed, Ms. Kane did hang herself by her shoelaces shortly after completing the play. But it is important to remember that it is also a piece of art that stands on its own. It is not so much a suicide note as a suicide poem. Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre Company, known for producing alternative, provocative work, has chosen a rich play to continue its legacy of pushing the edges of what can be performed on stage. Using movement and technical effects, Director Ryan Clark liberally interprets the work as an expression of grief, anger, and gallows humor.
Because there are few indicators in the script of what is dialogue, who is speaking, and what is stage direction, 4.48 Psychosis has been staged every which way in the past fifteen years. Iron Crow chose to use three actors (Nick Horan, Katie Keddell and Ché Lyons) who each played various “roles.” Sometimes Horan was the suicidal patient, speaking to Lyons, his doctor. Other times Lyons herself played the doctor, and so on – but with the exception of the several bits of actual interaction in 4.48, Iron Crow chose to express the text through monologues and movement.
Clearly, Director Ryan Clark and all three young actors in the ensemble (Nick Horan, Katie Keddell, and Che Lyons) were committed to this production, and their energy and commitment genuinely shone through on stage. Also engaging was the projection design by Travis Levasseur, which framed the stage on three sides with two long vertical screens and one long horizontal. However, the design itself frequently waded into the literal or even clownish (at one point, the psychiatrists office is engulfed in funhouse like flames). Meanwhile, the lighting and sound designs (by Alec Lawson and Ryan Clark, respectively) were perfectly adequate, although given the opportunities an open-ended play like 4.48 presents for innovative design, both the lights and the sound seemed underwhelming.
Although all three actors were deeply invested in the world of the play, the acting did occasionally cross into emotionalism. Don’t get me wrong – this is the challenge of the show, and it is not easy. The text is so blunt, so unrelenting, and (often) so devoid of sub text, it practically double dog dares an actor not to sentimentalize it. But like all drama, the more heavy the subject, the lighter the touch must be, and there is little heavier than major depression and suicide. The best moments of the show are when the action is specific. There is a moment when Mr. Horan lumbers around the stage like Marley’s ghost, dragging two chairs behind him in a symbolic act of medieval torture. As he runs through the lines of a characteristically morose monologue, he allows the action of dragging the chairs to motivate his desperation and fatigue. Likewise, during one scene Ms. Keddell pantomimes walking a tightrope, held fast between Ms. Lyons and Mr. Horan. This expression of cautiously walking over an abyss is more than apt for 448 Psychosis.
I think that 4.48 Psychosis is one of the closest things to a literary masterpiece that our generation really has. Confrontational, unique, stylized yet genuine, 448 fortunately seems to have firmly established itself in the canon of Modern Theatre. It also presents a unique opportunity for actors, designers, and directors, because the text is so open one is forced to boldly interpret it in order to stage it. Iron Crow Theatre should be commended for executing a challenging yet deeply rewarding play.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
4.48 Psychosis plays through October 18, 2014 at Iron Crow Theatre, performing at Baltimore Theatre Project – 45 West Preston Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 637-2769, or purchase them online.