Risking Life and Limbs

craveIt is good to see theater groups take artistic risks, and for the second summer, the Potomac Theatre Project has come to New York City for a month to show their work at the Atlantic Theatre Stage 2. Sarah Kane’s Crave and the New York premiere of Neal Bell’s Somewhere in the Pacific opened in previews on July 1. This company prides itself on presenting works that “are unapologetically political in nature.” Political, here, includes the personal since they believe “the personal is always political.” In the case of these two plays, Crave is more theatrically effective, a harshly poetic investigation of the dark side of erotic experience, whereas Bell’s play, set on a World War II warship, is more obviously political, but a less successful theater work.

British playwright Sarah Kane committed suicide in 1999 at the age of twenty-eight, leaving behind a small but very powerful collection of work. She is all about kicking out the boundaries, leaping well past good taste and safety into the realms of pain and desire. In Crave she provides four voices/characters labeled in her text simply A, M, B, and C. They could be four sides of one person, or four manifestations of different human dilemmas. The absence of stage directions leaves directors free to find their way, and director Cheryl Faraone has cast an excellent ensemble who bring the requisite intensity to their interwoven monologues. There is little physical movement but deep emotional engagement, and the absolute commitment of the actors (Adam Ludwig, Stephanie Janssen, Rishabh Kashyap and Stephanie Strohm) gives Kane’s material stunning life.

We sit riveted while a river of language flows out of these four wounded people, two men and two women. The piece is more an extended cry of despair than a logical narrative of any sort. But certain themes keep rising to the surface: bereavement, betrayal, desire, perversity, alienation, child abuse, regret, insecurity -- all the human flaws and vulnerabilities. Love is likely to be perverse, closer to obsession than commitment or intimacy. Everyone wants what he or she can’t seem to get. The glass is small and the thirst is great. Kane throws in echoes from T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare that enrich the already thick texture of this piece.

One of the male characters describes his passion for a woman: “and tell you you’re gorgeous and hug you when you’re anxious and hold you when you hurt and want you when I smell you and offend you when I touch you and whimper when I’m next to you and whimper when I’m not and dribble on your breast and smother you in the night and…”, on and on in his perverse paean to her desirability, what he calls his “overwhelming undying overpowering unconditional all-encompassing heart-enriching mind-expanding on-going never-ending love.”

Crave is a 45-minute roller coaster ride of the emotions. Dark secrets are hinted at. Like a Sylvia Plath poem, Kane’s work etches the bitter, dangerous map of our interior lives. Of course, both women killed themselves. There’s that to think about.

Bell’s play, Somewhere in the Pacific, does have a traditional narrative structure: Bored men on a troopship in the Pacific ocean joke around, worry about the enemy, wonder where they’re headed, fear Japanese submarines, and lament their sexual starvation. This final circumstance leads them towards the overtly homosexual sailor who presents himself to several of the Marines as an erotic object. Most of the rather too long one-act involves sexual game-playing juxtaposed to the slightly deranged captain’s quest to find out exactly how his son died fighting in the jungle war zone.

The problem is that both the staging and the acting have a forced, awkward quality, and the naturalism is ultimately unconvincing--which is about the worst possible flaw in a theatre piece. The story is ambitious, and the playwright, according to his notes, desired to write about “the cruelty/fear and the obsession/attraction that seem to entwine in homophobia.” But what he achieved is a very uneven text; there are moving moments and scenes, but others play like melodramatic life lessons in a high school pageant about homophobia in the military. The gay sailor Billy comments late in the play about getting outted in the service, “It said, ‘Sexual psychopath’ right there on his discharge papers. He could never get a decent job. He could never go home.” This is the risk in overtly political plays: that the message overwhelms the human reality.

As well as this evening of two one-acts, a third play, Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution, is part of the Potomac Theatre Project’s repertory season, running until July 26. - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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