Sarah Kane’s 1995 play Blasted opens in “a very expensive hotel room in Leeds — so expensive it could be anywhere in the world.” In the first scene, a childlike woman and a grizzled journalist — former lovers — drink champagne, munch sandwiches, and discuss their relationship. But by the play’s end, that same room teems with rubble, blood, a body with its head blown off, another buried beneath the floorboards, and the filthy shroud of a baby (the baby itself has been eaten).
When Blasted premiered in the winter of 1995 at London’s Royal Court, journalists on the left adopted a pose of weary disdain — The Guardian‘s Michael Billington originally called it “naïve tosh” — while more conservative critics attacked it as immoral and obscene. Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail described it as “this disgusting feast of filth.” Yet, in the years since that inaugural performance and Kane’s suicide in 1999, at the age of 28, Blasted has entered the theatrical canon as a contemporary classic, a scorching exploration of the origins and consequences of violence. After 13 years, Blasted will finally make its New York debut, on October 2, at Soho Rep, directed by artistic director Sarah Benson.
Why has a play now so highly regarded taken such a long time to arrive Off-Broadway? Benson, who first encountered the script as a British high-school student, can’t explain the delay. “Well,” she says, with some understatement, “it’s not a barrel of laughs.” Billington, who has since revised his initial impressions and now regards Blasted as possessing “somber power,” believes that theaters dependent on subscribers may have worried over the script’s excesses. He also proposes another possible reason for the play’s New York absence. Blasted, he says, “is a deeply European work, in that it’s based on a specific premise: What if the violence of the Bosnian civil war were to happen in our own British backyard?”
In a 1996 interview, Kane explained: “The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia. And the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war.” The Bosnian conflict never had quite the impact in the U.S. that it had in Europe. (Certainly, it didn’t provoke nearly so many responses in the form of films and plays.) But the war in Iraq, and information about some of the atrocities committed there, may inform the new production. Louisa Thompson, the production’s designer, says that she and Benson have looked at photos of the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Iraq for ideas about the set.
Benson suggests, however, that her interest in the play is rooted less in its analogues to any current conflict and more in a universal exploration of “how tiny, personal violations” can lead to greater and greater violence. And despite the play’s rapes, decapitation, and baby-eating, Benson sees Blasted as somewhat optimistic. “I think it’s hopeful,” she says. “Kane believes in human nature.” And indeed, even amid all the devastation, the play ends in a show of generosity, as one character kneels to feed another. Marin Ireland, who will play Cate, the young woman, describes the play as “interested in the nature of compassion, in the connections between love and cruelty, in the boundaries between human beings. It’s got so much beauty and humor … It’s a love story, but it’s so terrifying — which is definitely true about love.”
Perhaps Blasted will incur the same sort of shock and derision that greeted its inaugural British production. Certainly, portions will be very difficult to watch. (The prop designer, Sarah Birdhouse, has her hands full — and rather sticky — designing that edible baby filled with stage blood.) Yet Kane intended that difficulty, that discomfort. She told an interviewer: “If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experience engraves lessons on our hearts through suffering.” Blasted won’t provide a pleasant evening at the theater, but it might just offer a necessary one.
Starts October 2, Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, sohorep.org.
Starts September 10
“Beauty draws us with a single hair,” wrote Alexander Pope — so imagine how much beauty might be contained in the celebration of coiffeurs that Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new play offers. McCraney made an impressive and serious debut last season with The Brothers Size at the Public. Now, he turns to sisters of a sort: two Harlem drag queens who head fashion houses of the kind depicted in Paris Is Burning. Tina Landau directs these hirsute histrionics. The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, vineyardtheatre.org.
Starts September 11
On the evidence of their various plays and raucous post-performance parties, the theater collective Radiohole is on excellent terms with the demon alcohol. So it comes as some surprise that they’ve based their latest piece on the adventures of temperance campaigner Carrie Nation. Radiohole will match Ms. Nation with experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger to create a sort of “Teetotal Babylon.” Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, Maggie Hoffman, and guest performer Iver Findlay promise “miniature floating video monitors, Post-It notes, licorice, and a healthy dose of fairy dust.” The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, thekitchen.org.
Starts October 2
In the 1950s, Dr. Paul MacLean introduced his “three-brain theory” — the notion that we must navigate among three different brains: an instinctual “reptile brain,” an emotional “mammal brain,” and a logical “human brain.” We’re not sure it’s entirely logical, but the humans of Philadelphia’s wonderful Pig Iron Theatre Company have decided to apply MacLean’s notions to Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, here performed by four male actors — Dito van Reigersberg, Gabriel Quinn Bauriedel, Geoff Sobelle, and James Sugg — in a “mental circus.” Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, 212-868-4444.
Starts October 6
As wildly unprincipled journalists ourselves (theater criticism simply abounds with opportunities for graft, abuse, and falsity), we eagerly anticipate Irish playwright Ronan Noone’s portrait of an amoral hack. In this one-person show, Campbell Scott plays Augustine Early, a man who transforms himself from trailer-park denizen to successful tabloid reporter. Justin Waldman directs this dark and trashy frolic, which received excellent notices at Williamstown. The Culture Project at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, cultureproject.org.
Starts October 7
Some years ago, Flemish author Jeroen Brouwers turned down the Dutch Literature Prize because he felt the ¤16,000 award was too meager. We can’t imagine Brouwers received much for the rights to make a stage adaptation of his wrenching autobiographical novel, but he’s nevertheless consented. Flemish theater groups Toneelhuis and ro theater, in collaboration with popular Netherlands actor Dirk Roofthooft and director Guy Cassiers, offer this story of the five-year-old Brouwers’s internment in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org.
Starts October 22
Playwright Beau Willimon’s play traces the ethical missteps of a campaign worker, in a script purportedly based on the author’s own experiences in the Howard Dean campaign. Once discussed as a likely candidate for a Broadway production, the play will instead run in an Off-Broadway primary at the Atlantic, while Willimon works on adapting the script for a film version, set to star Leonardo DiCaprio. The play contents itself with the worthy John Gallagher Jr.; director Doug Hughes sets the campaign strategy. Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th Street, atlantictheater.org.
Starts October 22
A Polish company founded in 1964, Theatre of the Eighth Day survived the Communist period, despite political opposition and official harassment. Some years ago, the company chanced on a report about one of their early works, compiled by the secret police. The troupe has used the information in that file as well as personal correspondence and extracts from that earlier subversive work to create a new piece examining repression, the artistic impulse, and the literary abilities of the Polish police. Part of the Made in Poland Festival. 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, 59E59.org.
Starts October 28
Earlier this year, New York magazine included this Stephen Sondheim musical in an article called “Hey, How’s That Project Going?” a piece about some of the art world’s most long-delayed works. Sondheim began work on the tuner, then called Wise Guys, in 1996. It went through several more versions under the sobriquets Gold! and Bounce. Now titled Road Show, this musical about a couple of confidence men will debut at the Public, directed by John Doyle. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org.
Back Back Back
Starts October 30
In the midst of the recent hearings about steroid use in baseball, José Canseco said, “From what I’m hearing, I was the only individual in major league baseball to use steroids.” In his latest play Itamar Moses assumes the drugging was slightly more widespread. Back Back Back focuses on three teammates who may have dosed. In what will likely not be ruled an error, the piece also marks the return to the New York field of director Daniel Aukin, a player much missed. Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, mtc-nyc.org.
Starts November 6
If “to be or not to be” is perhaps the theater’s most enduring question, the members of the performance group Goat Island have found an answer: the latter. After 20 years and eight full-length pieces, the collective decided to call it quits. And they made a play about it. Their ultimate work combines the architecture of the Hagia Sofia, Lenny Bruce’s last routine, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” knights in armor, St. Francis, and a musical saw. Saying goodbye isn’t, it seems, a simple matter. P.S.122, 150 First Avenue, ps122.org.
Shrek the Musical
Starts November 8
Broadway has a long and profitable tradition of luring big-screen stars to the stage. Its latest coup: a lovable hero with a successful film franchise to his credit. Sure, he’s not conventionally handsome (bald, fat, green) and his dancing could use some work, but we predict a successful theatrical debut for that charming ogre Shrek. Acclaimed playwright David Lindsay-Abaire and composer Jeanine Tesori make a musical out of the very popular film, itself based on William Steig’s picture book. Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway.
Starts December 2
In a season of numerous film-to-stage adaptations (Billy Elliot, Shrek, To Be or Not to Be), we’re saving up for the popcorn-candy-soda combo at this one: Flemish giant Ivo van Hove’s version of the 1977 John Cassavetes movie. Van Hove will likely turn his talents for unexpected scenography and extravagant emotion to this piece, which concerns an aging actress who holds herself responsible for a fan’s untimely demise. In Dutch, with English subtitles. BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org.
Nathan the Wise
Starts December 9
When Enlightenment thinker G.E. Lessing wasn’t authoring gorgeous treatises on aesthetics or inventing the profession of dramaturgy, he occasionally amused himself with playwriting. His sprightly comedies and bourgeois tragedies still merit occasional performances, but it’s rare that a theater company takes on this strange 1779 fantasia. Set in 12th-century Jerusalem, it borrows a story from Boccaccio to tell how a merchant named Nathan brokers peace among Jews, Christians, and Muslims — a goal as difficult and laudable as in Lessing’s day. Pearl Theatre, 80 St. Marks Place.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 3, 2008