Performing Sarah Kane is a tall order for any theater company, and Svaha Theatre’s production of Crave (directed by Elise D’Avella) at The Iron Factory handles the task with aplomb. One of Kane’s less-coherent-but perhaps most-frequently produced – works, the text is a poetic tapestry of four disembodied voices proclaiming, as playwright and Kane’s friend David Grieg describes, “love’s assault on the wholeness of the self.” The text offers few context clues and no stage directions in its non-linear jumble, choosing to do rather than to tell – to attack, to grieve, to take, to push away, et cetera, et cetera.
Given the open-ended nature of the text, the door is open for interpretation and concept. Loosely the characters appear to be two heterosexual couples. Svaha chooses to let the text stand alone without concept, which is not satisfying for those looking for answers, but is the perfect choice to emphasize the emotional push of the piece.
The exposed brick and marley floor of the Iron Factory is the only set given to us – feeling strangely theatrical for such a visceral piece. Costumes are contemporary, each performer could have been wearing the same clothes when they arrived at the theater earlier that day. Slightly underwhelming, the choice does emphasize regular-ness, grounding the characters in everyday life. As the play progresses, the actors (Patrick McAndrew, Jessica Otterbine, Rachel O’Hanlon-Rodriguez, and Dan Cullen) use chalk to draw on all surfaces – walls, floor, each other – and the characters leave their permanent mark on the room, scars on an otherwise intact and understandable space.
The actors treat their words more like Shakespeare than Mamet, treating Kane with deserved reverence over revulsion. They deliver the dialogue with little room for breath, lines careening into each other, effectively overwhelming the audience and emphasizing the few times when time does slow down.
One particular moment that stands out is Dan Cullen’s minutes-long monologue (a rarity for Crave) explaining all of A’s “never-ending love”. The text is saccharine for perhaps the first time, and the passion flows beautifully from Cullen. The other three performers handle their language with similar dexterity. However, the piece does fall into patterns of shoutiness at times, a trap embedded in Kane’s heart-wrenching language. During these sections the piece struggles to climb out of a sort of forced, hands-to-the-sky-with-tense-fingers pain, although the piece usually finds its way back to a more delicious murkiness.
D’Avella stages the piece in a 3/4 thrust configuration with a back wall – nearly in-the-round. Actors prowl the stage and hurl themselves about, using movement and gesture to emphasize the rhythmic text. The movement adds just enough energy to supplement the text without venturing into “experimental theater production” territory, a tricky balance to find.
The performers make eye contact with the audience at times, occasionally pointing and directly addressing individuals. This is the one choice that I disagree with. While I loved being glanced at, challenged yet drawn into the whirlwind that was occurring onstage, direct address is a bridge too far. I do not need to be accused by an onstage voice, as the audience is not otherwise dramaturgically included in the goings-on of the piece. If Svaha remounted this show elsewhere, I would highly suggest removing direct audience address while retaining the eye contact that so gently pulled me in so I could be steamrolled seconds later.
Points for difficulty. Points for execution. Points for getting out of its own way. Svaha’s Crave presents a challenging text without decoration – a wonderful assault on senses that desire more narrative connections but (likely correctly) receive none.
Running Time: 55 minutes, with no intermission.
Crave played from September 9 – 13, 2016 at Svaha Theatre at The 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival performing at The Iron Factory – 118 Fontain Street, 3rd Floor, in Philadelphia, PA.