A Woman Over the Precipice in 4.48 Psychosis at Catastrophic

November 20, 2021

Catastrophic Theatre has not been softened by a year-and-a-half of COVID isolation and deprivation, it’s been sharpened and honed razor-sharp. It will cut you.

As a welcome back present to the theater, Sarah Kane’s radical and subversively lyrical 4.48 Psychosis, a cause célèbre to some, a cri de coeur to others, is the perfect opening after our spring, summer, and winter of discontent. It’s what our unnamed heroine would call the perfect metaphor. She’d shout it more profanely, naturally, with more guts and anguish, for she’s about to commit suicide and nothing is going to stop her.

Young English playwright Kane, branded the mother of “in yer face” theater, exploded onto London’s theater scene in 1995 with her contemporary Grand Guignol experimental Blasted, a dystopian fever dream of war and its atrocities. It contains violent rape, the most toxic masculinity, sodomy, eye gouging, starvation, cannibalism, and other forms of man’s inhumanity. The shocks don’t confront the audience, they bulldoze it. Needless to say, the play caused a tsunami among many of the staid English critics who called it grotesque, an abomination, and filth.

Overnight, Kane became a star, and Blasted sold out. She went on to mystify and enrage with Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, and Crave, each one becoming a bit more twisted in structure, unconventional in form, and focused in language. She was the hot new voice in theater, raw yet poetic, wild yet contained in a skewed classical way.

Then in 1999 at the age of 28, overcome and paralyzed with depression, she committed suicide. Her theater star blazed. She became a god.

Her final work, produced on stage a year later, is 4.48 Psychosis, a free-form ride into the abyss of mental illness. There are no characters, no defined scenes, no set suggestions or stage directions except numerous “a long silence” notations after certain sequences. It could very well be a monologue if that’s how the director wants to stage it. It’s all open-ended, except for the inevitable end. Stage this as you will, Kane implies.

Catastrophic rises to Kane’s challenge with a magnificent production, anchored by Jason Nodler’s solidly imaginative direction; a fierce, fiery, elemental performance by T Lavois Thiebaud as the haunted protagonist; the calm but powerless psychologist limned from Amy Bruce who can not stop her patient’s downward rush to oblivion; and the masterful video and sound design by James Templeton. All the other production credits (set by Afsaneh Aayani, the split-second lighting by Hudson Davis, costumes by Macy Lyne) are merely first-rate. This is glorious stage work all around.

The play isn’t for everyone. It’s themes are psychosis and suicide, after all. Leavened sporadically by Kane’s biting irony, there are twinges of gallows humor – the succession of doctors all played by Thiebaud in the videos with their unsuccessful cures and litany of unpronounceable drugs is a welcomed respite, as are such one-liners as “I dreamt I went to the doctor’s and she gave me eight minutes to live. I’d been sitting in the fucking waiting room half an hour.” But it’s mighty dark and deep inside the mind, and it will only get darker and deeper.

4.48 tends to screech at times, becomes unmoored in flights of linguistic overkill, and the praised projections – some found footage, some specifically shot for this production, some family movies etiolated and scratched with age – are so brilliantly conceived and executed that they ofttimes overwhelm the forefront action. But the cumulative power of the play is undeniable and devastatingly empathetic. Like the doctor, we can only witness. If you’re up for it, Catastrophic’s Nodler, Thiebaud, Templeton, et al., give you a subterranean virtual reality tour that’s full of shock and awe…and wonder.

The young woman longs for death as strongly as she longs for love. In her harrowing chase into her private maelstrom, she finds only one. Full stop.

4.48 Psychosis continues through December 12 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays at  The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Tickets are pay what you can with a suggested price of $35. Masks recommended.