Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 23 October 2014

4:48 Psychosis

St. Ann's Warehouse ⋄ 16th - 26th October 2014

Doing a number.

Molly Grogan

The British playwright Sarah Kane left one unperformed text after her suicide in 1999. Named for the nighttime hour at which she often woke, 4:48 Psychosis is a powerfully abstract work, a single stream of consciousness that rolls like a wave over her fears and obsessions, breaking on the voices in her head and pulling them, disembodied, into the rip tide of her unrelenting depression. It’s pure emotion but, formally speaking, a blank slate. And so it offers the possibility for the kind of theatrical risk-taking that TR Warszawa has come to embody in Poland and, thanks to the work of directors like Krystian Lupa and Krzysztof Warlikowski, internationally as well.

It’s a surprise therefore to discover such a conventional production of 4:48 Psychosis from Grzegorz Jarzyna, TR Warszawa’s artistic director, as it makes its US premiere this week. Conventional in the sense that Jarzyna has chosen to impose a familiar narrative on Kane’s spiraling litany of anxieties and insecurities.

The production opens on a young woman in soiled looking sweats standing rigidly at a long table. There is a man slouched in a chair next to her, staring into his cellphone. “You don’t need a friend; you need a doctor,” he tells her, after listening to her pleas for attention. Nevertheless, another friend does appear, the woman’s lover, and an erotic wrestling match ensues on the floor, but it ends in recriminations. Her psychiatrist follows, naturally it seems, and wants to know how she cut herself.  Away from his gaze, she will take pills by the handful and her friends will have to sit worriedly in the waiting room when she lands in the hospital. And she will kill herself, of course, in a bloody, naked mess.

Kane worked at developing a surreal aesthetic to treat horrific crimes and bestial violence on stage, so this banal realism could be a radical approach to her work. Jarzyna’s vision does not translate, however, into anything perceptibly new in our understanding of Kane’s notoriously difficult oeuvre, except perhaps that despite her violent themes and the reputation she earned from some observers as a monstrous shock-artist, she was just a frightened, angry, depressed woman. Maybe the real revelation here is that this is meant to be a revelation.

The only tip to Kane’s more typically abstracted search for meaning comes in the presence of an 8 year old girl (Olivia Flanders) and an elderly woman (Jadwiga Turek) who shadow actress Magdalena Cielecka, as the anonymous speaker. While she struggles with her final leave-taking of this world, they serve as a reminder both of the journey taken and inexorable mortality. Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s set straddles Jarzyna’s exterior realism and Kane’s interior mirages: a dark plain of emptiness is anchored by a row of restroom sinks set in brilliant green tile and a moving glass wall the characters will move through like a corridor or as if through doors.

Cielecka portrays a woman in the throes of a nervous breakdown, pushing away all who would help her with a desperate determination, as she keeps her gaze fixed on her inevitable destruction. Her tightly controlled performance, which far outshines the bit-parts assigned to the rest of the cast (Lech Lotocki’s concerned therapist and Katarzyna Herman’s petulant lover) finds a raw energy in the coarse blows of the Polish translation.

The devil may be in the detail, but this dissection of Kane’s final days remains moored by its ordinariness. As a suicide note, it is painful viewing. Perhaps that’s all Kane wanted.

Molly Grogan

Molly Grogan covered French and international theater for 20 years in Paris. She has written on theater for The Village Voice and American Theater and managed an Off-Broadway theater company. She is a translator of fiction and non-fiction with a Ph.D. in Francophone postcolonial literature and a Masters in social linguistics.

4:48 Psychosis Show Info

Directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna

Written by Sarah Kane

Cast includes Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman, Lech Łotocki, Rafał Maćkowiak, Adam Woronowicz.

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 60 minutes, no intermission


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