Luna Theater Company delivers the most welcome surprise of the 2010-11 Philly theater season with its blistering staging of Sarah Kane’s ferocious and bizarrely touching drama Blasted.
And it’s like nothing you have ever seen.
The play begins in a generic hotel room (realized with just the right touch of ordinary in Dirk Durossette’s scenic design) in Leeds, England. Spending the night is a middle-aged journalist named Ian (John Jezior) and his troubled ex-girlfriend, Cate (Haley McCormick). Ian is domineering, and that’s an understatement. At one point, he has his way with the unwilling Cate while sticking a gun in her mouth. It’s an act of violation that sends her into a state of convulsions.
This troubling pattern of behavior continues through the night, interrupted by the occasional knock on the door. It’s only room service leaving food and a bottle of gin, but Ian’s reaction suggests it could be something far more malicious. We, too, suspect that violence lurks beyond the door, and our suspicions are confirmed when a well-armed and desperate soldier (Jerry Rudasill) suddenly bursts into the room. What happens next is difficult to watch, yet the violent images are so striking (Andrew Cowles’ lighting design is spectacular) you can’t turn away.
The production is helmed by Luna’s founder and producing artistic director Gregory Scott Campbell, whose direction doesn’t pull any punches. The acts of sexual violence (of which there are many) are graphically depicted, but the intent is not simply to shock the audience. Carefully paced and meticulously blocked, the production is unrestrained but is neither gratuitous nor manipulative. There is a point to all this violence, which makes Blasted impossible to dismiss.
Keeping in line with Campbell’s go-for-broke direction, the three performances are anything but timid. Jezior has been on local stages since 1992, and while he’s always been a decent actor, nothing in his resume compares to the seismic performance he delivers as the enigmatic Ian. Ian abuses Cate horribly, yet we come to pity this emotionally abused man. Which is why Jezior’s Ian is not the usual shallow portrait of evil. He is lonely, desperate and incapable of appropriate displays of affection. Despite his horrendous behavior, we believe him when he says he loves Cate.
McCormick is equally impressive. In lesser hands, Cate could be reduced to the stereotypical female victim. Cate is certainly victimized, but she is also the play’s most courageous and compassionate character, capable of forgiving even the most obscene transgressions. It is Cate who gives Blasted its humanity, and McCormick’s performance is an impressive achievement for an actress with limited professional experience.
Rudasill’s Soldier is unnervingly unpredictable. Alternately ruthless and easygoing, he is a frighteningly relaxed killer, who one moment is joking and collegial and the next moment is ripping Ian’s eyes out with his teeth. He is scary as hell, and the closeness that develops between he and Ian is both surprising and strangely poignant.
Blasted doesn’t have an obvious message. Experimenting with new forms of storytelling, Kane allows the audience to form their own impressions of the play. Showing us the ability humans have to endure suffering, Blasted is undeniably gruesome. However, Kane (who committed suicide in 1999) offers us a light at the end of the tunnel and the play’s conclusion is deeply moving. The physical abuse may be shocking, but loneliness is what scares the characters the most.
Making good use of the tiny Upstairs at the Adrienne space, the configuration of the seats and stage forces us into an uncomfortably close relationship with the characters (there are only three rows of seats so no theatergoer sits more than a few feet away from the barbarity on stage) and Campbell succeeds in making us feel as if we are part of Kane’s nightmarish world.
An example of high-wire theater at its best, Luna should be applauded for bringing the controversial Blasted to Philadelphia (the production is the play’s local debut). According to Campbell, it is the most expensive production Luna has mounted in its nine years, which considering the subject matter is an extremely daring move in these difficult economic times.
Some will no doubt find Blasted offensive, and for some theatergoers the play may be too intense (no one under 18 years of age is permitted to attend). But if you believe that theater has not only the right but the responsibility to address even the most horrific subjects, this strange and memorable play is not to be missed.
Extended through March 15. $12.50-$32. Upstairs at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 215.704.0033. lunatheater.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2