The Rhythm of Madness: Review of 4.48 Psychosis

4.48 Psychosis, the latest production by Corpus Theatre Collective staged at the BeBe Theatre, is a riveting portrait of madness performed by three fiercely effective actors. Delving into the psyche of a woman plagued by inner demons, pathological grief and clinical depression, the play circles around an unnamed protagonist as she battles with her inner-self, and struggles with physiological treatment. The play is unbelievably intense, creating the feeling that one has stepped into a wildly unstable mind that views the world through a lens distorted by pain, anger and fear.

What makes this play especially harrowing is that it’s the last work that British playwright Sarah Kane wrote before she committed suicide, using nearly the exact method in which the protagonist of Psychosis is constantly re-imagining. Fantasies of overdosing on medication while standing on a chair with a noose around her neck grip the character, and seem to inspire pleasure as the scenario is replayed in her mind. It’s gruesome, but this is what makes the play uniquely powerful. One is not witnessing a writer’s musings about depression, instead, they are thrown into the sea of blackness that Kane waded through when she composed the script. In 1999, shortly after Psychosis was completed, Kane overdosed, and survived. Two days later, she hung herself in a bathroom at London’s King’s College Hospital. This fact becomes especially haunting as Psychosis unfolds. Sensing that these were the thoughts that led Kane to surrender from life makes the production particularly charged: and exceptionally challenging for both the cast and the audience.

Written more like a novel in verse than a traditional play, Psychosis is fragmented and void of stage directions. Here is short sample of the way the words are written on the page:
“Here am I
and there is my body
        dancing on glass

In accident time where there are no accidents

        You have no choice
        the choice comes after.”
In addition to using this pared-down language, Kane never specifies how many actors are to perform in the production, leaving many decisions to the creative interpretation of the play’s director. The original play, performed in England in 2000, was staged with three actors, a tradition that director James Ostholthoff chooses to stand by.

Anne-Marie Welty performs the part of our main character. Twisting the edges of her shirt around her finger and staring intensely into the white lights cast onto the stage, Welty embodies her role completely, performing the part of a woman consumed by an ever-strengthening illness. Welty is so focused on this manic character that I could hardly recognize the actress that performed the part of a passionate college student in the production of Ivory (also produced by Corpus Theatre Collective), a testament to Welty’s versatility. Welty’s energy, the way she mimics the frantic behaviors of someone who is deeply unsettled, and her sheer confidence on stage drives the play to extreme levels of intensity.

Todd Weakley plays the part of the therapist, a concerned yet distant doctor who tries to reason with his patient, to no avail. Through the conversations between Weakley and Welty, one learns about the main character’s illness and history as a patient in a psychological clinic. Performing a memorable monologue, Weakly stands and reads a three-page list of symptoms and self-destructive patterns that his patient displays. With confidence and composure, Weakly is our voice of reason; the wary doctor that reminds his patient that he cannot hold her life in his hands.

Tori Hurst plays a more abstract character. Her role is up for interpretation, as I’m sure that every audience member walked away with a different insight into who/what this character is meant to represent. At first, I understood Hurst to be the main character’s more optimistic alter ego, but that relationship morphs through the course of the play, as optimism is slowly replaced by sarcasm and loathing. By the end of the performance, I thought of Hurst as the illness itself, taking form within the psyche of the main character. Whether she plays the part of the subconscious mind, a higher self or of the augmenting illness within, Hurst is a character of great intrigue. Coy and gentle in Welty’s fiery company, Hurst performs with great sensitivity, summoning greater questions about the mysterious nature of psychosis.

The greatest accomplishment of the play as a whole is its fluid lyricism, a musicality created by the actor’s dramatic reading of the script. Words exchanged between actors build in momentum as Kane’s poetic voice, laced with sharp and often repulsive imagery, is lifted to its full potential. Phrases such as “It’s not your fault” and “Trust the light, believe the light” are repeated again and again throughout the play in cyclical repetition. As these phrases return to us, one gets the feeling that time is looping and repeating on itself, much like the mind of the main character trapped in an insomniac state. 4:48 a.m., the hour of desperation, the hour of sanity, of absurdity and delusion, is constant. The effect is that we, the audience, are also cornered in this sleep-deprived state where dreams and reality are merged, where waking hallucinations abound. It is here that we experience the winding rhythm of the character’s madness.

Ostholthoff obviously made careful, meticulous decisions about staging this play. Using four black blocks to create a square on the stage, a dark atmosphere disconnected from time or space is established. Bright white light is cast over the simple set, illuminating the actors in a bright beam that makes the darkness of the theatre seem endless. The actors engage with each other in strict lines, moving from one diagonal position to another in a dynamic yet distant dance. At moments when the main character is especially consumed by delusion, musical selections featuring upbeat instrumentals linger over the dialoge. The cheerful music is in constant opposition with the character’s thoughts, an effect that makes the material all the more unsettling. With these elements combined, Ostholthoff establishes a constantly engaging atmosphere, leaving his audience perched at the edge of their seats, uncomfortable throughout.

4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane. Directed by James Ostholthoff. Produced by John Crutchfield. Featuring: Anne-Marie Welty, Tori Hurst and Todd Weakly. Stage Manager/Board Operator: Stacie Worrell. Set Carpenter: James Hill. Musical selections by Joey Baron and John Lindberg.

4.48 Psychosis will be performed Thursday to Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. through Oct. 24. There will be a matinee performance at 2 p.m. on Sun., Oct. 18. $10 students/$15. Not recommended for children.

About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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One thought on “The Rhythm of Madness: Review of 4.48 Psychosis

  1. Batensmack

    Garrrgh.. I saw this show produced at Warren Wilson College last year and it was an intensely challenging and profound theatrical experience. I wish I could have seen this production but had other engagements both weekends. That’s one of the problems with Asheville Theatre. Short runs, then *poof* they’re gone. But I guess the audiences don’t support longer runs, eh?

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