Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Girl, Interrupted

August 07, 2011

l-r: Lena Louyoumdjian, Cynthia Mance, Ann Stocking, and Justin Davanzo Photo: Charles Duncombe

One of the pleasures in Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, a play with far more pains on offer, is it’s adaptability. The sometimes poetic language of the text is divided into numerous fleeting phrases with no real stage direction and a distinct lack of defined characters. There are some snippets of dialog that can be read as exchanges between a psychiatrist and a patient. But for the most part, this intense examination of a mind on the verge of suicide and the ravages of mental illness is open to broad interpretation. The thing that struck me most in Frédérique Michel and Charles Duncombe's maximal staging, which started its run at City Garage this week, was how much concrete definition this production has, compared to its recent predecessors in Los Angeles.

4.48 Psychosis had its local premiere as part of the tragically now-defunct UCLA Live International Theater Festival in 2004 in the original Royal Court Theater production from London. That three person version relied on a giant mirror, some clever AV tricks, and incredible acting from three performers repeatedly shifting dramatic positions, each taking turns as a "patient" for a show that was raw nerve from beginning to end. The very next season, UCLA presented the show again in a French language version with Isabelle Huppert at the front of the stage and a largely silent Gérard Watkins behind a giant scrim. The monotone half-translated soliloquy produced an eerie and detached effect in sharp contrast to its predecessor. City Garage and its founders and directors Michel and Duncombe have a history of presenting challenging and unexpected material, so Kane's bracing work is not a surprise choice from them. What may be more unusual is that they pull out all the stops with a comparatively huge six person cast. Among those six players are a clearly defined patient, "she", a "psychologist", a nurse, and a chorus of three talking heads. Those heads act as the internal voice or voices of the patient, and Kane's poetic lines are increasingly fractured as they are passed back and forth around the players. The focus on character differentiation extends into some psychological development as well with Michel granting the psychologist figure, played by Tim Orona, with some clearly defined and expressed counter-transference.

Weather or not this increased definition is a good thing or not depends on your point of view. Michel's version feels more like a critique of the mental health system with some of the patient's tortured poetry, which is spoken here by Cynthia Mance, getting lost in the mix. While there is still plenty of examination of the inner workings of the suicidal mind, the external relationships play as important of a roll here. On the other hand the repeated interruptions with music that the patient and her chorus of inner voices find themselves compelled to dance to, cleverly reflects the kind of internal disruptions that many patient's suffering with mental illness face. There is quite a bit of pre-recorded sound in this show and it at times serves as a character in its own right, arguing, cajoling, and bargaining with the others on stage. And despite a few visual clichés for madness, as when Mance wears her boots on her hands during the second half of the show, this is a unified event that captures Kane's downward spiral of a play with all its tragedy.

There was another irony in this most explicit of show from one of L.A.'s most boundary-defying groups and that was its location. City Garage was unceremoniously tossed from its long term Santa Monica home last year and has been on the search for a new home. The company has now taken up residence for the time being in the Track 16 Gallery at Santa Monica's Bergamot Station. It's not a permanent solution, but seeing the company in this space, compared to their former city garage, did have its pluses. Any company with consistent artistic personnel in the same space for so many years, runs the risk of becoming repetitive. The new lighter, brighter gallery space, gave the show a more open feeling than some of those evenings in the alleyway in Santa Monica could have afforded. The light here feels less intense and more diffuse battling against a claustrophobic feel. Seeing Michel, Duncombe, and their regular troupe deal with the challenges of a new environment, even if it comes with some unwanted instability, was theatrically rewarding. 4.48 Psychosis continues in City Garage's new home through September 9.

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