BWW Reviews: The Wilbury Group Stages a Fearless, Brutally Honest Production of BLASTED
As an art form, theater is many things. It is entertaining. It is inspiring. It is thought-provoking. It can also be disturbing, challenging, provocative and divisive. Some might argue that this is exactly what theater should be and is meant to be. Something that elicits powerful emotions, both positive and negative, from an audience. Something that causes them to discuss, engage, and even argue with each other over what it all means. Love it or hate it, its power to grab the audience and make them face a difficult reality cannot and will not be denied. This is exactly the kind of theater The Wilbury Group has created with their production of Sarah Kane's Blasted.
As soon as we enter the world of the play, it's clear that things are not going to go well. The setting is a dingy, dismal, almost dungeon-like hotel room. It's occupied by Ian, a crude vulgar man full of hate and venom, and Cate, a mentally disturbed woman who is childlike in her emotions and actions. It appears at first to be some kind of twisted romantic rendezvous but the concept of romance soon goes out the window. As the play progresses, things get darker and darker, with a war raging outside the hotel's windows and a personal war occurring simultaneously between the couple and a third character who enters later in the play.
To give away much more of the plot would be to do a disservice to the play and the production. Much of its power lies in not just the shocking events, but how unexpected and surprising they are. And in Kane's script, they come fast and furious, one disturbing moment after another. Truthfully, the play at times feels less like a fully developed story with textured characters and more like a greatest hits album of horrible things people might do to each other. As things become more and more desperate in the hotel room, the three characters find their humanity slipping away, symbolized by the horrific things they do.
Kane's script does not back down from depicting those events in all their misery. The play includes multiple simulated sex acts, brief nudity, rape and bloody violence inflicted by one character onto another. The playwright clearly wants us to see just how inhuman we humans can be but none of the characters has much humanity to begin with. They are never really explored or developed as people and we never get any idea of their real motivations, histories, inner thoughts and lives. One character, especially, is really just a plot device. While we never get to know anything about him, other than the fact that he's committed terrible acts of violence, he simply appears on the scene so that more horrible things can happen to the characters who are already there. There are more than a few moments which come out of nowhere, with little or no motivation other than to prove, once again, just how inhuman and awful people can be.
That certainly may have been Kane's purpose, to never really develop these people or their motivations, to leave them as almost primitive animals, acting out of base instincts. Her focus is squarely on making them become as inhuman as possible and she certainly succeeds. It leads an audience to one end of the spectrum or the other. The audience member either says, "Yeah, right, that would never happen. Puh-lease," or he says, "Wait...that could really happen...couldn't it?" Or, the audience member, not really given any reason to care about these characters, just doesn't bother to care one way or the other about what they do to each other.
It's just one of many fascinating questions the play brings to mind. Is today's audience even moved by this kind of story with these kinds of inhuman acts? There are so many scenes of sex, violence and violent sex, all over the movies, TV and the internet, and they are all so easy to access. Are we desensitized to these kinds of actions? The young crowd sitting near me at the show seemed unfazed and nonplussed by the whole thing. One young woman spent a portion of the show texting on her cell phone. What might it say about us that we watch this kind of play with such detachment and disinterest in our modern day and age?
Whether one loves or hates this kind of play, the self-assurance and talents of The Wilbury Group and everyone involved must be acknowledged and applauded. Wilbury has not shied away from this play just because it's difficult or disturbing. In fact, they've embraced it in all it's glory, if you want to call it that. Director Josh Short has led his actors into very dark territory and done a remarkable job. He brought together three very talented actors and an equally talented creative team who have put together a high-quality production of a very challenging play, one that many other directors and companies would refuse to touch with a ten foot pole.
Leading the ensemble is Alexander Cook as Ian, a crude, vulgar journalist who seems to hate everyone and harbor bitterness and spite towards most of the world around him. Cook is a brave actor who is asked to act out numerous disturbing moments throughout the play. His performance is beyond committed, as he transforms completely into this man who descends into the deepest, darkest recesses of inhumanity.
The only person Ian loves, or claims to love, is Cate, played here by Amber Kelly. She gives another brave and fully-committed performance as a young woman who is always struggling, always fighting, whether it's against Ian's sexual advances or her own mental and physical deficiencies. Like her cast-mates, Kelly completely disappears into this character, creating a vivid and real person, the most real and human performance of the three.
Less fully realized, but no less disturbing, is the excellent performance of Jo-an Belanger Peralta as Soldier. Peralta isn't really given much to do other than talk about the horrific things he's done in the past or do more horrific things to Ian in the present. Still, he commits to the performance, giving it everything he has and leaving it all on stage, as they say. In this type of play, you really can't ask for anythihg more than an actor who is bold and fearless, up for anything and willing to fully exlore and express what the script asks of him or her. All three of these actors to that impressively.
Equally impressive is The Wilbury Group's use of another space in their home at the Southside Cultural Center. For this production, they've moved upstairs, onto the balcony above the large room they usually use for their productions. The choice works perfectly, creating a truly real feel of dismal doom and gloom in this very recognizable but equally depressing hotel room, created perfectly by Set Designer Monica Shinn and brilliantly lit by Lighting Designer Jason Eckenroth.
Fair warning, though, the space is not so conducive to an audience viewing the production. The balcony is curved, so some seats have a slightly obstructed view, unable to see around the corner to what's happening far upstage. It's not just problematic in those obstructed-view seats. Other audience members were leaning side to side and craning their necks to get a better view of the action. This was largely due to the fact that much of that action happens on the floor, with characters sitting and crawling around on the ground. It can be very hard to see those moments, regardless of where one is sitting. Hopefully, if Wilbury continues to use that space, they'll work out the audience viewing issues.
Regardless of where one sits in the audience, the impact of this play, for better or worse, won't be denied. Kane has written her play to make sure of that, to make sure we get the point, loud and clear. This includes the message that, in the end, there may actually be hope or compassion in this dark nightmare of a world. Whether to experience that world is up to each individual theater goer. Some should avoid this play, probably, based on their sensibilities. Others should experience it and let the questions inspire discussion and debate. After all, isn't that what great theater, and any great art form, is really meant to do?
Blasted contains graphic violence. Audience discretion strongly advised.
Performances of Blasted are on Friday and Saturday night for three weekends, March 21st to April 5th, at the SouthSide Cultural Center, 393 Broad Street, Providence. Show time for both nights is 7:30 and tickets can be purchased through the company's website, www.thewilburygroup.org.
Pictured (L to R): Amber Kelly and Alexander Cook. Photo by Brian Gagnon.