Young writers are often advised to write what they know. If that was the case with playwright Sarah Kane, then the young Brit was certainly a twisted, tortured soul in search of redemption who not surprisingly ended her own life in 1999 at the age of 28 by hanging herself with shoelaces in the bathroom of a London hospital.
Kane left behind a small body of work-only five plays, a short film and a couple of newspaper articles-all intense and brutal. Two years ago, Joseph Adler’s GableStage mounted a Carbonell-winning production of Kane’s inaugural play, Blasted, a frightening, metaphoric view of sexual assault and the war in Bosnia that left the South Florida theater community buzzing.
Now, Thinking Cap Theatre, under the direction of founding artistic director Nicole Stodard, has taken on Cleansed, Kane’s third play, at Fort Lauderdale’s Empire Stage in a spare, yet thought-provoking production that will leave audiences shocked, perhaps mortified, and forced to challenge every conventional assumption of love.
The work is set a university sanatorium, but it’s really a chamber of horrors where patients are less likely to be healed and more likely to lose their struggle with life or have it ended for them. The audience is introduced first to twins Graham (Daniel Nieves) and Grace (Grace), whose sibling bonds extend well beyond the womb. Then come Carl (John Robert Warren) and Rod (Andy Herrmann), a gay couple that aren’t quite on the same page when it comes to commitment.
The common denominator is Tinker (Jim Gibbons), their doctor, or is he? Tinker is Graham’s drug dealer, sending him into a stunning overdose in the first scene and leaving his body to be cremated. He then must deal with Grace when she checks into the clinic in an attempt to reconnect with the memory of her brother.
When it comes to the relationship of Carl and Rod, Tinker takes it upon himself to hold the two accountable for what they say, barring Carl from communicating his love for the non-committal Rod by first sadistically removing his tongue, then his hands and legs after raping him violently with a pole. I warned you this was intense stuff.
Even when Kane tries to portray the sweetness of love, it takes a horrific turn as another inmate in the house of horrors, Robin (Robert Alter), tries to present Grace with chocolates. Tinker humiliates Robin, emotionally emasculating him before finally granting Grace a surprising gift, but don’t forget, Tinker’s not really a doctor.
And Tinker is more than he seems, revealing his own insecurities to a mysterious female dancer in a peep show window (Desiree Mora) who is revealed when a few coins are dropped into the slot.
Kane’s material is disturbing and bizarre and that "a-ha" moment-when it all comes together and makes sense-arrives late in the 75 minute play, if at all, judging from the befuddled audience reaction when the lights finally came up. But, then again, Kane was a little crazy.
Director Stodard is the first to admit that Cleansed has been one of the greatest artistic challenges she’s tackled, but given Kane’s script, any seasoned director would struggle to mount a convincing production. She gets a lot from her mostly young cast and makes the most of Kane’s terse, fast paced and emotional dialogue.
George Kun’s minimalist set effectively transforms Empire Stage’s tiny space into the cold, hopeless institution with just a metal examination table, bench and school desk, but it’s the creative lighting from Jeffrey D. Holmes and Nate Sykes and extensive sound effects from David Hart and the Thinking Cap team that complete the nightmarish scene.
Cleansed by Sarah Kane
Thinking Cap Theatre
Thursday - Saturday through March 31, 8 p.m.
Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale
Tickets $30 at ThinkingCapTheatre.com or at the door