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  • Operatic Chambers
  • Nicolas Benacerraf (bio)
4.48 Psychosis, opera based on the play by Sarah Kane, composed by Philip Venables, directed by Ted Huffman and designed by Hannah Clark, Prototype Festival, Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York, January 5–12, 2019.

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Installation view of Drill (2019) at Park Avenue Armory, 3-channel video installation, 21 min., HD video.

Photo © James Ewing.

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4.48 Psychosis, the concluding work of Sarah Kane’s too brief life, is perhaps more famous as a literary document than as a stage script. Set within the mind of the playwright as she struggles with a litany of voices—rational, medical, ethical, social, religious, and, most notoriously, suicidal—the largely autobiographical script places Kane’s agony on display as experienced from the inside. Likened often to an expanded poem, its austere stage directions say nothing about the physical or material context for these words. In what has become an icon of postdramatic theatre, Kane self-consciously relinquishes the authority conventionally afforded to the playwright, placing an exceptionally high demand upon any contemporary artists staging the work to impose a discernible organizing structure upon it. A daring new opera, which enjoyed its US premiere as part of the annual Prototype Festival and which continues to tour the world, answers Kane’s invitation by translating her dense document into a pulsing and fully integrated Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk that confounds historical constructions of theatrical authorship.

In a white, three-walled room, the competing voices in Kane’s mind are given corporeality via six performers, twelve instrumentalists, and a precision-cut design, which together create the impression of watching an animated chamber of the mind at war with itself. Composed by Philip Venables and directed by Ted Huffman, the opera deploys a synaptic logic that horizontalizes the performers, music, design, and text as equal forces on stage. Perhaps mislead-ingly, it is billed as an adaptation—notably the first ever authorized by the Kane estate—yet faithfully remains a verbatim staging of the original 1999 script. In it, the antagonistic multimedia forces swell and crash fluidly over one another in staggered and overlapping time scales, producing an array of combinatory [End Page 44]

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Kane is assaulted by a litany of antagonistic voices that manifest across multiple media in 4.48 Psychosis. Photo: Paula Court.

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Photo 2: Scene between Kane and her therapist in 4.48 Psychosis, accompanied by dueling bass drums and projected text. Photo: Paula Court.

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effects that demonstrate the slippage between reality and imagination, self and world, at the core of this work.

Within the soundscape alone the text is delivered through a multitude of media apparatuses: as traditional operatic singing; as interpreted by percussionists with the aid of projected supertitles; and as pre-recorded passages of clearly spoken text blasted into the room by a loudspeaker mounted on the center wall of the set. Lofted above and behind the back wall of the chamber sits the twelve-person orchestra—comprised of percussion, strings, saxophones, wind instruments, and piano—members of the New York–based Contemporary Ensemble. As these collaborative and generative musicians push the bounds of their instruments, Venables offers audiences a landscape of sustained and shifting tension that manifests across multiple musical modes. Indeed, anyone familiar with the written text will recognize that the chamber swells and crashes in a manner that appears synesthetically linked to the relative positions of the word on the page, giving dramaturgical emphasis and musical weight to individual lines based on their prominence and distribution. Brief instances of loud static in the sound design add to the disorientation, interjecting themselves within and between the script’s twenty-four episodes, thereby confounding the audience’s ability to identify specific beginnings and endings for the chapters, which ultimately build into a series of suicidal thoughts and actions.

All six performers on stage are women of approximately the same height who wear identical outfits, and their operatic singing offers the text a heightened urgency that borders on desperation. One figure, played by Gweneth-Ann Rand, never leaves the stage...


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