Stage Review: 4:48 Psychosis

The performance creates a fluid path through the complex script

By David Bernabo

The Cast: Siovhan Christensen, Erika Cuenca, Tammy Tsai. Photographs courtesy of Off the Wall.

Off the Wall’s production of playwright Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is a haunting look at clinical depression, its impact on the mind, and the environment surrounding treatment and medication, all told from the patient’s viewpoint. Written months before Kane’s suicide in 1999, this subjective play, essentially a prose-poem written without characters, stage directions, or setting, risks burying an audience in a cyclical monologue about suicide, but through the use of movement, backed by a strong cast, director Robyne Parrish and choreographer Moriah Ella Mason are able to create a fluid path through the complex script.

Siovhan Christensen, Tammy Tsai

The play opens with two characters, played with Siovhan Christensen and Tammy Tsai, languishing in some sort of psychiatric institution, a beautifully designed set that displays part of the spoken text on the walls. Christensen’s legs rise out of a bathtub and Tsai sits on the edge of a mattress, evolving a small tremble in her hand to a whole body shake. Lead actress Erika Cuenca enters wearing more proper attire and holding a small suitcase. Having not read anything about the play prior to the viewing, I was pleasantly surprised by the turn from Cuenca’s initial authoritative entrance — is the character a doctor, a relative, a lawyer — to her role as the main patient in the story. That transformation of authority occurs throughout the piece, mainly when Christensen and Tsai put on lab coats and transition from patients to doctors. The narrative is told by either a patient or an authority or some halfway state where the sanity of authority is questioned.

The lack of direction from the playwright allows each production great autonomy in shaping the context for the narrative, which also places great responsibility on the director, cast, and contributors. Cuenca admirably tackles the subject matter in a studied, tempered manner. Tsai and Christensen provide solid support with Tsai injecting small details — facial ticks, contortions, tight angular movements — into each of the characters that she performs. Reni Monteverdi’s post-minimalist score lingers in the background of the piece, looping and modulating, providing a subtle, but perpetual forward-motion to the pacing of the play. Mason’s choreography avoids easy solutions for representing mental negotiations visually, and applies an intriguing range of motions that feel perfectly natural — without being pedestrian — within the confines of the play.

Despite the existential crises that exist in the script, the mood never hits an extreme that forces the audience outside of the confines of a performance. A knowing distance remains where the audience understands that it is seeing a performance of anguish and not anguish itself. So, instead of breaking the audience down with shock and raw nerves, the production leads the audience through the cyclical maze of depression, doubt, and questions of sanity, slowly building tension. This aspect allows the humorous portions of the play to remain humorous. At one point, Cuenca’s character describes her over-prepared approach to suicide, “Take an overdose, slash my wrists then hang myself. All those things together? It couldn’t possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help.”

By seamlessly blending movement and voice, director Robyne Parrish and choreographer Moriah Ella Mason have orchestrated an enticing performance that certainly makes the 65 minutes of pain, agony, and despair seem much shorter.