Note: Entire Contents Copyright 2016 by Michael Hoban
As the cast was taking its bows following the opening night performance of “Blasted”, the brutal and unflinching look at abusive relationships and wartime atrocities now being presented by the Off the Grid Theatre Company at the BCA, I turned to my friend and facetiously whispered, “Feel good play of the year!”
While “Blasted” is anything but, there really aren’t a lot of post-play conversation starters that are appropriate for a work that is, quite frankly, unlike anything you are liable to see this (or any other) year. Any play that includes gun-in-the-mouth suicide, the death of an infant, rape of a woman (implied) and a man (acted out – minus full exposure), as well as a host of other violent and sexual acts, and concludes with some fairly graphic cannibalism does not lend itself readily to the question, “So, where are we going to eat?” after the curtain falls. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be seen. On the contrary, this is a well-directed, superbly acted and powerful work, particularly when the action shifts from domestic violence to the unspeakable cruelty that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another during wartime.
Ian (Christopher James Webb), a hard-drinking mid-forties journalist, arrives at a swank hotel in Leeds with his young lover – a somewhat dim young woman named Cate (Alexis Scheer) who appears to be just barely out of her teens but with whom he appears to have a long history. As he showers, she jumps up and down on the bed with the glee of a child on Christmas morning. He paces the hotel room (with a 9 millimeter pistol always close at hand), and we get the vague sense that there is some sort of uprising going on outside in the streets. Between racist and xenophobic rants, he tells Cate that he is dying, and repeatedly tells her that he loves her, while trying to coerce the unwilling girl into having sex with him. When she tells him that she doesn’t love him, he is visibly wounded, and when the next scene materializes, we see the two in bed, and the condition of the hotel room leads us to believe that he has violently raped her.
The next morning, the bizarre rhythm of this twisted relationship is more fully revealed, and we begin see that Cate is not as powerless as one would surmise. And just as the pained but somewhat repetitive dialogue between two damaged “lovers” begins to wear a little thin, a soldier (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) breaks into the hotel room (as Cate escapes out the bathroom window), and the level of horror is catapulted from the comparatively pedestrian domestic violence to a place where humans only venture when their souls have died. At first it is almost gratifying to see Ian punished for his exploitative behavior towards Cate as he cowers in fear, but that quickly evaporates as the soldier begins to inflict all manners of pain and humiliation upon him. This is a nightmare brought to life, and the combined skills of the director, cast, and creative team craft a bleak and hopeless world for us to view from the safety of our seats.
Despite the gruesome nature of this play, we never feel we’re watching the violence and gore for its shock value, because every scene is vital to the narrative, no matter how upsetting. The relationship between Ian and Cate, while disturbing, is more sexually and psychologically graphic than physically violent, and anyone who has read accounts of war atrocities will not be surprised by the action that takes place between Ian and the soldier, as difficult as it is to watch. There is a scene in the closing moments of the play that is especially unnerving, but again, it fits within the fabric of the story. But it’s one thing to read about such barbarities in journalistic accounts and quite another to see them recreated in theater – especially in such an intimate setting as the sectioned-off portion of Wimberly Theatre where it is being presented.
This is a first rate production of the groundbreaking debut script by playwright Sarah Kane, who battled depression and took her own life at the age of 29. First produced in 1995, the play shocked audiences and critics alike when it debuted, but has since been mounted multiple times, often to positive reviews. Director John Kuntz gets tremendous performances from the cast, beginning with Parent as the soldier, who manages to capture the calculating heartlessness of Ian’s tormentor while also allowing us to see how the pain that was similarly inflicted upon him as a victim of the war turned him into a monster. Webb also brings a real emotional depth as Ian, transforming from a drunken and gutless bully, to petrified prey, to an almost sympathetic character by play’s end. Scheer brings a cherubic innocence to her role initially, but as circumstances force her to make tough choices, she transforms into the hero of the piece. And Ryan Bates (Set Design), Jeff Adelberg (Lighting Design), and David Reiffel (Sound Design) do an amazing job of creating the hellish setting and atmosphere.
While this play is clearly not for the squeamish, it is not the most jarring thing I’ve seen in 2016. That honor belongs to ART’s brilliant production of ‘1984’ last winter, which nightly had audience members walking out due to the graphic nature of the torture scenes. And despite the physical and psychic trauma of ‘Blasted’, I was not as emotionally impacted as one would think after viewing such an exercise – but maybe that has to do more with the way that we learn to detach from even the harshest of scenarios in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
If you’re looking for something a little more challenging in your theater choices this season, ‘Blasted’ certainly pushes the boundaries, and is a worthy take. For more info, go to: http://www.offthegridtheatre.com