“It’s absorbing, and even after two volumes I can’t figure out why.” The gentleman seated in front of me was reading the third volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle. I needed a distraction from the looped music emanating from center stage at The Rose Nagelberg Theatre at Baruch Performing Arts Center. The tinny elevator music was disorienting and hypnotic with a cadence obscured by pale bass.
A change of elevator music and soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand’s measured entrance began 4.48 Psychosis, the first musical adaptation of a Sarah Kane play in its U.S. premiere by the PROTOTYPE festival. In the days leading to her suicide, Kane awoke at 4:48 a.m. and found brief clarity. I was skeptical of the opera’s ability to transcend the play’s tragic history; composer Philip Venables and director Ted Huffman produced a mercurial work of unexpected gentleness and painful precision.
“But you have friends. A lot of friends. What do you offer to make them so supportive?” From its earliest moments, 4.48 Psychosis crystallizes what Venables calls the “searing human connection” in Kane’s words and welds the audience to Gwen’s craving for connection and self-hatred. Her psychiatrist is a frail priest of reality, mediating between the self, society, and perception before crumpling. Gwen’s relationship with herself is visualized by five other women who appear after a reference to cockroaches and are by turns her intimate comforters and brutal opponents. All women were dressed identical costumes: black tank tops, rolled grey pants, grey knit sweaters, grey sneakers. Grey.
“Look away from me,” Gwen insists. LOOK AWAY FROM ME.
“Can I look?” asks the doctor.
Venables birthed an abrasively intimate score that coaxes tenderness out of a hammer. Kane’s play gives no stage or character directions, including the number of performers: this production features women, but primarily treats universal topics (I don’t know if the score permits other gender performers in future performances). Venables spent nine months writing a dramaturgical treatment of the play before composing, and the result is music that curls around the drama from every point of view.
New York City ensemble Contemporaneous, conducted by William Cole, was stationed above the set with primarily torsos visible. Their suspended setup reflected a score that often hovered in upper registers and on the edge of awareness. The music cycled through wispy muzak and total bombardment with fragments of ancient, jazz, and sacred styles. Forty minutes into the opera, a heartrending lament for “a woman never born” pulled Purcell and a vibraphone ground bass into the work. Light ornamentation, sudden organ, and microtonal violin encapsulated the controlled descent of the piece. Rather than merely referencing genres, Venables managed to draw their social contexts into the awareness onstage and situate 4.48 Psychosis in a stream of universal human longing.
Lucy Hall, Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Rachael Lloyd, and Lucy Schaufer provided Gweneth-Ann Rand’s character her modern Greek chorus, and their purposeful movement, violent outbursts, and nearly blank faces (directed by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown) kept the show fleshy and grounded. Extended, tender moments of physical connection inside Gwen’s mind contrasted non-verbalized conversations with her doctor, which were pounded out between percussionists stationed on opposite ends of the stage with synchronized text projections.
In some ways, 4.48 Psychosis is unmerciful: the space between the stark white set and the front row was so narrow that audience members tripped on the way to their seats, forbidding any distance from the opera. Kane’s brutal language is somewhat forced onto audience bodies via sight, sound, and vibratory speech imitation. The orchestra plunges into full spectrum shrieking as suddenly as Gwen’s tender connections with her companions spike into strangling. Some of Gwen’s most vulnerable melodies are muzzled by herself and others. Yet lighting design offered some respite in critical moments, and Gwen’s death was less a spectacle than it might have been. Despite violence, Venables gives a rendering of depression that accentuates tenacity, intelligence, and humanity.