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St. Louis by Richard Green

4.48 Psychosis
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

4.48 Psychosis
Cara Barresi, Audrey Martin, Margeau Baue Steinau and Kimberly C. Mason
If you're old enough, you may remember the marketing slogan for the horror movie The Last House on the Left: "To avoid fainting, just keep telling yourself, it's only a movie ... it's only a movie!"

For the nearly relentless 4.48 Psychosis, the opposite may work better: you might want to repeat, "this really happened, this really happened—and playwright Sarah Kane really did kill herself at the end." The true story was first performed from a rough draft in London in 2000, and nine years after her suicide, it is still hard to take in its American premiere.

The 2009 staging shows great discipline and imagination on the part of director Pamela Reckamp and her cast. A young woman (Audrey Martin) goes through a series of psychiatrists (Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbetts, in multiple roles) in her search for understanding, stymied by suicidal thoughts and deeds. Margeau Baue Steinau, Cara Barresi and Kimberly C. Mason play the maddening voices in her head, and they're far more troublesome than Shakespeare's "weird sisters" ever dreamed of being. Most of the time, their work is grueling and stentorian. And without the grave foreknowledge of Ms. Kane's impending suicide, much of the experience might seem needlessly agonizing: like every screaming fit of your teenaged sisters, resounding in an echo chamber, until the end. Yet it's also artistically realized: a bottomless vortex of fear, anger and madness.

About ten minutes into this urgent, 85-minute onslaught, we actually get some relief, as Ms. Martin and her demons take on a more conversational tone. This is very welcomed, and the two or three times it recurs later on give us a little breather in the midst of complete aggravation. Otherwise, it's a play of furious immersion, sweeping over us whether we wish it or not. And, in those few interludes of relative calm, we are drawn in to the playwright's torment, though much of her struggle pushes us away.

Ms. Martin (representing the author) does yeoman-like work, weighed down (literally and figuratively) by her demons. There's a beautiful poem in the text that says, in summary, "I exist," and a clever bit where the girl and her voices play a series of game-show contests, where all the right answers are expressed in the form of psycho-babble to please her doctors. But each medical expert refuses or fails to recognize her pleas for nurturing, and even one of Ms. Schwetye's psychiatrist is forced to confess, "most of my patients want to kill me."

The show has many very stage-worthy moments to justify the experience. There's a gripping seizure on stage, with horrible shaking on the ground, and a strangely beautiful bout of head-banging, where Ms. Martin's long hair dances in lovely, mesmerizing leaps and bounds. The only thing that may be missing is a glaring strobe light, to segment every anguished transition into a series of grimaces (though such lighting effects are notoriously dangerous for performers).

Ms. Steinau's own astonishing brand of on-stage intensity finds its perfect groove when her cohorts reach the full moon of their madness; and Ms. Mason drives home the overall feeling of dread, describing the patient in question as a painting that might be titled "Horror in Repose." Finally, as the lights go out at the end, Ms. Martin says "It is myself I have never met: whose face is painted on the under-side of my mind." And at last, we can begin to grasp the meaning of her madness.

Through March 7, 2009, at The Chapel Theater, 6238 Alexander, St. Louis, Missouri, 63105. For information call (314) 835-7415 or visit them on-line at www.slightlyoff.org.

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Cara Barresi, Audrey Martin, Kimberly C. Mason, Ellie Schwetye, Margeau Baue Steinau, Rachel Tibbetts

Crew
Director: Pamela Reckamp
Light/Sound Design: Michael B. Perkins
Dramaturgy: Judy Tibbetts
Costume Consultant: Kirsten Wylder
Stage Manager: Dianna Thomas
Properties: Katie Consumas
Technical Director: Dan Steinau
Scenic Artist/Carpenter: Chad Weller
Lighting Operator: Kim Gifford
Artistic Director for Slightly Askew Theatre: Margeau Baue Steinau


Photograph: David Mitchell


-- Richard T. Green

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