4.48 Psychosis taps personal yet universal demons

By Stephanie Mielcarek

“Intense.” This is the first phrase that comes to mind when trying to describe 4.48 Psychosis. The word, mind you, does nothing to actually illuminate the play, but it does roll off the tongue easily enough—easier, at least, than trying to break down the complex series of emotions, spaces, and states of mind this play hurtles its audience through.

Playwright Sarah Kane created 4.48 Psychosis as pure text, without stage directions, character descriptions, or even clear indications of who is speaking at any given point. Lines are sparse, and often rely on repetition for their meaning or force to sink in. The Hypocrites put their own twisted take on this already darkly poetic play. Director Sean Graney and his company create an altogether different theatrical space, in which there is no designated area for the audience. Rather, playgoers are invited to move about between three platformed “rooms”—a bedroom, bathroom, and office—taking in events and surroundings from whatever angles they find most suitable.

The Hypocrites give the phrase “dealing with my demons” a whole new image, with three fancifully, albeit terrifyingly, garbed figures encircling the troubled, nameless main character, played by Stacy Stoltz. They enter the scene suddenly, dressed in blue and violet toned bodices with sheer mesh hoop skirts that beg the audience to peer at the legs and garments underneath, with dead baby dolls floating overhead. Stoltz spends the first portion of the play clad in a plain blue shirt and striped blue-toned pajama bottoms. At about the halfway point, everyone onstage throws off their apparel as the main character tearfully deals with a bout of frustration at the body she perceives as flawed. Eventually, she dons one of her demons’ extravagant outfits, while they prance about in her blue pajamas-a striking way to demonstrate that we are in fact our own most hateful demons.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this piece, however, is the manner in which it provokes audience involvement. Stoltz and her demons stand on pedestals and rush through the crowd, entreating the audience members to watch, to listen. She screams, sobs, and, perhaps worst of all, calmly rationalizes to those around her about her doubts, fears, insanity, and frustration, both with and without her medication. The gripping nature of this play stems as much from the audience’s reactions as from her tremendous performance. Faced with a woman contemplating, debating—no, planning—suicide before their very eyes, some stare back at her tearfully, some look at their shoes, at the floor, anywhere but in her eyes. And many watch blankly, as if she were a scientific specimen, or perhaps a mere actress on a stage.

At two or three intervals, a monotone male voice states, “Rest #1. This is not in the play.” What follows, in the midst of actors throwing off their stage mannerisms, primping and so forth, is a portion of an absurd yet mournful philosophical musing on a woman leaning in to kiss another woman, who might or might not turn into a mooing cow at the moment their lips touch. 4.48 Psychosis is full of moments like these, moments that make its audience laugh aloud, while somehow feeling guilty for being mirthful in the midst of such a scene. At one point, the therapist screams at her patient, “I hate this job,” provoking a mixed reaction of giggles and horrified expressions.

As the play progresses, 4:48, the moment at which “the afflicted mind is said to assume clarity,” and allegedly the time at which the most suicides take place, looms. Stoltz, indeed, does seem to become more rational, her thoughts more lucid, as 4:48 creeps ever closer—but by the play’s end, one worries about where this seeming clarity comes from, if it is to be desired, and if not, whether it can be countered. The play offers no answer, as Kane took her own life only months after writing the script, and shortly before it was first performed.

4.48 Psychosis blurs the line between reality and theater a little too well, perhaps. Walking out of the Garage Theatre, many patrons seemed shocked, if not themselves broken, while others flippantly quipped, “Well, that was depressing; I’m glad my life isn’t like that,” and went on their merry way. While the play itself deals with the issue in some depth, these audience reactions create an even more striking commentary on how society deals with issues of mental illness and depression.

The Hypocrites’ mission is “to make a Theater of Honesty.” They state, “Ultimately, we aim, perhaps somewhat naïvely, to spread understanding within society, thereby minimizing cruelty.” Whether or not the Hypocrites succeed here is a question I can’t answer—but I will say that 4.48 Psychosis creates a landscape that must be walked through to be fully experienced, if not fully understood.