Theater Preview: Crave

“Crave,” opening this weekend at Lisner Downstage, depicts a mental battleground. Its characters are the fragmented, combative thoughts of a mind suffering through profound rage and regret. Its driving pulse sweeps an intensity through the lines that makes you grit your teeth in anticipation. And it all takes place on a blue tarp.

The play, written by British dramatist Sarah Kane, is a graphic reflection of its author’s own misery.

“She really got her suffering down on paper,” director Daniel Kenner said. Kane, who wrote four other plays, hanged herself at 28, a year after she wrote “Crave.”

“Crave” lacks a traditional setting and plot, and the characters are named only by the letters A, B, C and M. Consequently, the show has been interpreted in a variety of ways; the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., presented a version where the characters stood in a sandbox for an hour. Kenner, who makes his directorial debut with this play, said that he had developed what he called the “Jackson Pollock Idea.” In Kenner’s version, each character begins the show with a blank canvas, which he or she paints as the show progresses (hence the tarp). Every performance starts with fresh canvases, so no two performances are exactly the same.

“They play’s about layers,” Kenner said. “The idea is that one character can paint something beautiful, and then another can debase it.”

The four performers – Colby Katz-Lapides, Danni Scherr, Caroline O’Grady and Jonathan Foox – use their paintings to express what their character cannot or will not say. Scherr, who plays “M,” digs into her canvas with long, ferocious strokes, while she whispers demurely that she has so little time. They also use the paintings to interact with each other. Katz-Lapides, or “A,” torments O’Grady with disturbing anecdotes as he smears red paint across her delicate yellow lines.

Although the characters all remain on stage for the duration of the show, they are sometimes hardly aware of each other. At other moments, they splinter off into a series of dysfunctional relationships – a frustrated mother and her child, an estranged couple, an abusive boyfriend who pleads to stay as his girlfriend begs him to leave. The fluid nature of the characters makes them seem almost dreamlike; Kenner described them as “the voices in your head right before you fall asleep.”

The play’s dialogue contains a distinct meter, making it sound more like a poem than a script. This rhythm serves to steer the play, imbuing it with a sense of urgency as the actors recite line after line. The intensity of the language rises and falls, but there is always that swift undercurrent of helplessness – these characters are clearly doomed.

This sometimes presented challenges to the cast, who found they couldn’t rely on time-honored acting strategies.

“Acting will make it look insincere,” Scherr said. “You have to put strength into the words. It’s just how you say it.” The cast worked diligently to perfect the voices of their characters, and their efforts show; they avoid affected dramatics and instead concentrate on the meaning of their lines. For instance, Katz-Lapides’s monologue, a gushing stream of sentiment, is already filled with enough emotion that he doesn’t need to add anymore; thankfully, he leaves it as is.

“Crave” is assuredly different from anything performed on campus so far this year. Take a risk and go see it; you can voice any complaints or compliments during a half-hour discussion following each performance.

“Crave” opens this weekend, and runs Friday through Sunday, at Lisner Downstage. See for details.

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