Before her suicide in 1999, at the age of 28, British playwright Sarah Kane became notorious for her visceral plays. Blasted, performed at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1995, provoked such descriptions as "vile," "disgusting," and "depraved" from London's theater critics. But it's difficult to see this aspect of Kane's work in Crave, her first play to be produced in America, as rendered by the Axis Theatre Company.
Last year, Axis took over the theater at 1 Sheridan Square, formerly home to Charles Ludlum's Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Axis completely renovated the space, equipping it with state-of-the art technology and giving it a polished look and feel. The result is a very antiseptic environment which may be visually stunning but tends to be theatrically deadening. The video monitors and projections that Axis typically incorporates into its shows lend a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere to the stage action. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily serve the productions well.
In Crave, the monitors show the cast in various "realistic" settings: in bed, on a couch, in a bar. Mott Hupfel's film work is lush and colorful. In contrast, Mark Spada's costume design for the actors' on-stage appearances are rendered in muted tones of blue, black, and gray. David Zeffren's moody lighting plays heavily with shadows and light, creating a visual environment that fills up the bare set designed by David Ramirez. All of these elements have the potential to make for exciting theater, yet they never quite add up to a unified whole.
Randy Sharp's static direction prevents both actors and audience from becoming involved in the play. I find it amazing that a script littered with references to and descriptions of rape, murder, suicide, and pedophilia could seem so utterly boring. For the most part, the four actors stare out into the house and deliver their lines in a near monotone. The one exception to this is David Guion, who manages to make a connection to his words and is the only cast member who seems to engage with any other character. The others occasionally try for an emotional depth, but usually fall short.
The draw here for most theatergoers is undoubtedly Deborah Harry (of Blondie fame), who appears as part of the four person ensemble. She has a commanding stature and does as well as can be expected, given the constraints that the director seems to have imposed upon his cast.
The most frustrating aspect of Axis' Crave is that the production makes it difficult to judge the merits of the script itself. Written as a four voice poetic drama, the play has some interesting ideas as well as truly haunting verbal imagery. There are references to genetic messages passed on from generation to generation, whether in the form of a broken nose or a mother's memory. One character describes herself as "an emotional plagiarist." Another tells us that he's a much nicer person now that he's had an affair, because he realizes that it doesn't mean anything.
Then, of course, there are the references to suicide. It is nearly impossible to listen to these passages without thinking of the playwright's own self-inflicted death less than a year after Crave was written. Even while resisting an autobiographical interpretation, it is difficult for one to process the hopelessness and despair of the language.
Kane's worldview is highly pessimistic; there's a reason why her work unsettled critics. Instead of hiding behind technology and stylized aesthetics, a good production of Crave needs to bring out the disturbing elements of the author's work. Sadly, Axis seems more interested in the virtual at the expense of the visceral.
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