'Psychosis': Powerful Despair
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Crack open the door of a sensory deprivation chamber just a fraction, and the mood is thrown off. That seems to have happened to Factory 449's production of "4.48 Psychosis," which was a powerful, hypnotic entry in this past summer's Capital Fringe Festival.
Hypnotic is what you want with this drama, of course, for the 50-minute play is a desperate, chanting howl from British dramatist Sarah Kane, who killed herself (at age 28) before it was produced. The staging last summer enveloped the audience in despair, and the hot, hovel-like room where it was performed added to the usefully oppressive atmosphere.
Factory 449 has transferred the show (its first) a few doors up Seventh Street NW to the scruffy Warehouse Theater. That's hardly like moving into the Ritz, yet the production has been dressed up just enough that the clean air of art is seeping in. Not that it's ruined: "4.48 Psychosis" is still a jolt, with roughly a dozen actors standing ominously on chairs (hanging is a threatened option) as they combine to form the shattered voice of the nameless doomed narrator raging at the world.
But John Moletress's staging isn't quite the stark slap in the face that it was. And while the differences are slight, they do register. The lighting is fuller, and warmer. (Why, for such a grim night of the soul?) The video design, with white noise and awful news and documentary footage on monitors strewn about the stage, is more prevalent, at times competing with the actors as they try to master Kane's snarling, often disjointed torrent of language. Even the acting is more polished in spots, compromising what previously felt like an agonizingly direct depiction of everyday troubled psyches, a hellish but recognizable waiting room of the damned.
All of which is to say that a show that once floored audiences now merely looks slightly overdone but still generally smart, particularly given the challenges of the script. (It should be mentioned that one performer, Mary Suib, performs in a wheelchair, having suffered a broken foot last week; while she still fits in, it makes the standing-on-chairs business look more precarious than ever.) Moletress does especially nice work foregrounding bits of dialogue between the horribly depressed central figure and a doctor she sees; Kane's vision of this relationship is grippingly insightful and splendidly played by Lisa Hodsoll (the doctor) and Sara Barker.
Barker is still deeply compelling as the main voice, again ghostly in a pale blue slip and with her eyes hollowed out by shadows from a lamp overhead. She gives a furious performance, at times dryly sarcastic and elsewhere practically quivering with anguish. Barker stops just short of the baroque, and she seems keenly aware of the line; the slightest false notes can sound especially tasteless here, for this script often feels less like a play than a document leading you straight to Kane. As much as anything in this show, Barker's performance honors that.
4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. Directed by John Moletress. Set and costumes, Greg Stevens; video design, Jesse Achtenberg; lighting, Eric Grims; original music/sound, Ryan Keebaugh. With Cesar Guadamuz, Brian Hemmingsen, Karin Rosnizeck, Julie Roundtree, Mary Suib, David Lamont Wilson, Randa Tawil and Stacy Whittle. About 50 minutes.