Physical theater in Anton’s Well’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ adds movement, discomfort to Sarah Kane’s turn-of-the-century elegy

Antons Well Theater Company./Courtesy

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The audience was filled with only about a dozen metal chairs lining the walls of the Temescal Arts Center. There was no backstage or curtain. The three actresses, Jody Christian, Adrian Deane and Anastasia Barron, entered the stage once and did not exit until 90 minutes later when the show was completed.

“4.48 Psychosis” premiered in London in 2000 after the suicide of playwright Sarah Kane in 1999. The work reads more like a poem than anything else — little to no specific setting, characters, time period, line breaks or even plot. In short, the piece is an entirely raw examination of Kane’s psyche, especially her suicidal depression, in the time immediately before it ended her life.

In a piece that draws such strength from simplicity, the Anton’s Well Theater Company production adds complication to the piece in the form of costuming. While some productions opt for exclusively white or black costumes, in this performance, all three actors wear cropped olive green stretch jeans, peach T-shirts and dark chiffon blouses buttoned over the top. Initially, it seemed as though these costumes were an attempt to ground the performance in reality, but overall, the director does not shy away from the surrealist elements of the show. Therefore, the costumes are ultimately out of place.

In another more successful deviation from simplicity, the lighting design by Nathan Bogner is a spectacular anchor throughout the show. During a conversation that has the feel of one between a doctor and a patient, the patient (Deane) is lit with a deep red spotlight as the doctor (Christian) is side lit, the shadow of her profile huge and intimidating, lighting most of the stage. The strobe lights that flicker between scenes serve to amplify the silence that bounces around the wood-floored room.

Silence is taken full advantage of during this performance. There are many instances without noise when the audience listens to only the shallow breaths of the three women onstage, reckoning with the sheer physical effort being exerted.

This production of “4.48 Psychosis” makes extraordinary use of physical theater. The actors stretch themselves both emotionally and physically. What’s more, the audience is so close that it can see every knee shake or deep breath as the actors warp themselves from graceful to grotesque and back again. The piece begins with a work of modern dance to classical music, a motif carried throughout, with remixed classical pieces popping up at various points in the play. However, beyond more obvious uses of dance and movement, the work also features much more subtle physicality. As Christian and Deane talk across the stage, Barron lays between them writhing around on the ground, a physical articulation of tension and pain.

In a review of a different production of “4.48 Psychosis,” I wrote that the production demanded to be felt. This production, in contrast, expands and complicates that declaration into a question by engaging more directly with audience members, looking them in the eyes and sitting among them. Should it be felt? Should it be looked at, picked apart, reviewed? Deane screams, “Look away from me,” over and over again at Christian and denies her several requests to look at the cuts on her arm, her open wounds. Christian describes her doctors as “a room of expressionless faces staring blankly at my pain, so devoid of meaning there must be evil intent,” as she looks out at an audience matching that description almost precisely.

“4.48 Psychosis” is a show that has been done many times before and will likely be done many times in the future. In the production staged by Anton’s Well Theater Company, however, the actors engage the audience directly, take full advantage of the physicality in pain and suffering and turn the show into a moral question of its very existence as a stage play. Instead of simply hearing of the torturous pain of depression and psychosis, the audience sees it in dance and contortion, which makes looking across the stage to the audience members on the other side sitting in an identical row of metal chairs, faces expressionless, all the more disturbing.   

“4.48 Psychosis” runs through Aug. 5 at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland.

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.