I Get Blasted
Sometimes, a night at the theatre is painful, for all the wrong reasons. Other times, an evening of theatre can be shocking and cruel and still make you want to go again and again. For me, the American Premiere production of Blasted by Sarah Kane at the Soho Rep was the latter.
About 6 months ago, I received an e-mail from my good friend Reed Birney. Reed is an accomplished, talented New York actor who works all the time, but you would never consider him a star. He is, however, universally adored by the New York Theatre Community… and in a widely distributed e-mail, he urged a vast network of friends and colleagues, to “act quickly!” He was appearing in the American Premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted at Soho Rep and tickets were already flying out the door. Besides, the e-mail continued, “not only do you get to see me make my nude stage debut, but I’m sure that all of you want to see me brutally raped at gunpoint.”
Neither one, truthfully… but to celebrate my 54-year old friend’s courage to bare his bits on the boards AND to witness the rare opportunity to see a fully mounted production from the limited cannon of Sarah Kane, infant terrible of the London Theatre in the last glimmers of the 20th Century, that was worth bucking my inertia and, as the e-mail advised, taking immediate action.
Blasted was Kane’s first play, begun when she was still a schoolgirl in Birmingham, UK. It premiered in 1995 at the Royal Court Theatre in London. The action of the play is set in a room of a luxurious hotel room in the north of England, where all seems normal – though there are vague references to a gathering menace in the streets below. Ian, played by Birney in this Soho Rep production that I am now hungry to see, seeks to reignite a dubious affair from the past with an emotionally disturbed innocent named Cate. Ian bristles with gin-stoked rage when his expectations are not met, and a vicious cycle of abuse and brutality are leveled from both sides. After the appearance of a starving machine-gun-toting soldier from some Baltic conflict, the narrative descends from a naturalistic though disturbing domestic scene into an increasingly nightmarish world of horrific vignettes, depicting anal rape, cannibalism and other shocking brutalities that largely enraged the British press at its premier. The Daily Mail, in a review typical among the London dailies, referred to the play as a “disgusting feast of filth.” Blasted was, however, praised by many of Kane’s supporters as an important work, making important parallels between domestic violence and war, and between emotional and physical violence.
Had she not suffered from debilitating depression, Kane may have seen those critics eat their words. She took her own life at 29 just two years after Blasted was first produced.
Now, it’s a cold Wednesday dusk, an hour before curtain, and I’m walking through what I remember from my salad days as a hell-hole south-of-Canal-Street neighborhood, now newly chic. My destination: The venerable Soho Rep, where Blasted is playing, and, incidentally, where I made my own New York acting debut, semi-clothed, in 1977. I am walking along filled with magical thoughts, en route to the same theatre where my own professional career began, the same theatre where Sarah Kane was to have the American debut of her play, AND where my BBF Reed Birney was making his big-city-debut-de-naked butt. I am loving life at this very moment, when out of this existential reverie appears an angel. It’s Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Marsha Norman.
“Marsha!” I say.
“Stephen!” She replies. “What are you doing in my neighborhood?”
“I’m seeing this play at Soho Rep.” says I.
A long pause, with concern beginning to color her face. “Ohhh…” she keens, “I hear it’s a pretty rough go”
“So I’ve heard,” says I.
“Here’s what you do…” she says. “Have a drink, a stiff one.” (I’m thinking, no problem there!) “And,” she continues, “purchase a bar of your favorite chocolate, and consume it quietly during the performance. Good Luck!” With that, she was gone.
I followed her instructions to the T.
The production did not disappoint. It was exquisite, and to say the actors were good or even great doesn’t even begin to describe it. Their performances were convincing, accomplished, exciting, but more than that… they were brave. Even under the artifice of theatre, to surrender yourself each evening to the lowest of the lower depths of human experience can take a toll on an actor’s psyche. It’s a balancing act of professional approach and artistic commitment. To be so convincing and yet come through the experience six nights, 8 times a week uncrushed by the weight of such darkness is a victory as glorious as any award.
As for me, the medication of one stiff drink quickly wore off as I was drawn into this dark world. But as I continued to follow the action down to below-hell depths, I found myself becoming more and more emotionally detached. I could no sooner accompany the character to where they were headed than follow them to Mars. Why would I want to? I have my own demons to wrestle with, thank you very much. But then, as I became more and more free from my emotions, my judgments began to soften – and my ideas about the action onstage became irrelevant. Maybe it was the chocolate, but a curious change began to take place: The more brutal, the more graphic and repellant the action became, the lighter I felt. With each atrocity depicted with such care and craft by this extraordinary cast, director and production, I began to believe that I was being given a gift, an opportunity to exercise the darkest facets within my own psyche, the parts appearing only in my worst nightmares, and to allow this shadow to emerge safely. After two hours of witnessing artful representation of mankind at its most depraved, I left the theatre not so afraid of the dark.
And, thanks to Marsha Norman, I had chocolate to share with my battle-scarred companions to the right and left… a communion.
Afterwards, over drinks with Reed at some Church Street dive, I asked what the experience of playing this role was like. He said that he’d never had such a liberating experience, onstage or off. As strange as it sounds, I knew exactly what he meant.