Eugene Weekly : Theater : 2.14.08

Forced Choreography
Going through the (e)motions at the UO’s Arena Theater

4:48 Psychosis is a suicide note, therapy session, monologue and angry chant all wrapped up into one. When you find out British playwright Sarah Kane committed suicide shortly after completing it, the heft of her words take on additional foreboding.

4:48 is an end game, riddled with rhetorical devices, self-deprecation (“What do you offer to make your friends so supportive?” is an oft-repeated refrain) and hypotheses about happiness, delusion, suffering, reality and where the four points meet and diverge. Kane’s play is rightfully a poetic mess — one that could easily be botched — but in the hands of director Jennifer Thomas and her seven female cast members, the play is pulled off with intensity and grace.

Visual metaphors are in ample supply in this highly charged work. When the actors filter into the Arena Theater’s compact space as the audience waits for the “curtains” to open and the show to begin, they are like scattered thoughts being collected around and inside the asymmetrical jungle gym set piece superbly designed by Katherine McGlamery.

Kane’s script is intentionally left open to interpretation. Some productions have used two women and a man; some have used a single actor, while the UO has stuck with the play’s repeated motif of “serial sevens,” counting down from one hundred by sevens to test for mental concentration. Like a shattered mirror, the seven actors are all facets of the same psyche, working as an ensemble to something larger than themselves. For all of Kane’s personal demon purging, 4:48 gets quite clinical in the way it picks apart depression into its (sometimes amusing) counselor-patient situations and into its theoretical basis in systemic psychology, a school of thought that treats an individual as an open system that remains stable only through the relationship between parts.

In 4:48, the parts falter again and again, especially in the deliberately out-of-sync “dab flicker punch slash wring slash punch slash” sequence, a dance that beats the actors into a trance-like submission. To Kane’s mind, life is a forced choreography where one goes through the motions of existence until insanity or death prevails. “Body and soul can never be married,” an actor says at the end of another sequence, and it’s clear that blind faith in medicine and science is slowly giving way to bleak despair.

Given the play’s thematically stark overtones, it’s only fitting that Thomas and her crew present the play as an expressionist emotional journey of nearly two hours without intermission. Janet Rose’s lighting design recalls the work of Russian and German expressionist filmmakers while the sound design emphatically pushes the adrenaline levels up a few notches (though near silence is used to equally poignant effect). Also, this is one of the few plays where it works to turn out the house lights and let the glowing exit signs stand in as a prop.

Unfortunately the ending tugs a bit too cheaply on the audience’s emotions, especially by employing Sigur Rós’ “The Nothing Song.” (As EW‘s movie critic Molly Templeton wrote, “You could play Sigur Rós over footage of me walking home from work, and suddenly my walk would become epic and fraught with meaning.”) But for fans of experimental theater, modern dance and an appetite for uncomfortable, in-your-face ensemble acting, 4:48 is your ticket to a heady trip through heaven and hell.

4:48 Psychosis continues through Feb. 16. Cheap tix available at 346-4191.