WHEN Through 3/4: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 7 PM

WHERE A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells

PRICE $20-$25

INFO 312-943-8722

But when the blast of war blowsin our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger;

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,

Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage.

–Shakespeare, Henry V

When Blasted premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1995, it sparked a firestorm of controversy. Though leading theater artists, including Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, defended this piece by brilliant young newcomer Sarah Kane, many critics denounced it as gross, self-indulgent, and adolescent (Kane was 23 at the time). One prominent reviewer famously called it a “disgusting feast of filth,” referring to its graphic depictions of rape (including sodomy with a revolver), masturbation, fellatio, and mutilation. Did I mention the suicide attempt? The dead baby? The two particularly gruesome instances of cannibalism?

Also perplexing to theatrical tastemakers was the play’s uneven tone. What starts out as a crisp, quasi-naturalistic relationship study literally explodes midway, turning into an expressionistic nightmare, then subsiding into a somber yet almost beatific ritual of healing. Perhaps most troubling was its portrait of an England overrun by war and anarchy, a view the play’s British detractors regarded as the ranting of a publicity-seeking punk.

After Blasted, Kane wrote four more plays before she committed suicide, hanging herself in February 1999 in the London hospital where she was being treated for depression. The later plays have all been performed here: Defiant Theatre did Phaedra’s Love in 1998 and Cleansed in 2001, and Side Project produced Crave in 2005 at the same time that the Hypocrites were presenting her last play, 4.48 Psychosis. But only now is Kane’s debut effort reaching Chicago, courtesy of A Red Orchid Theatre. The company first approached her about Blasted a decade ago, when she was directing ensemble member Michael Shannon in a London fringe production of Woyzeck. This show is well worth the wait.

Blasted begins with a man and woman in a Leeds hotel room. Balding, middle-aged Ian is a crime reporter for a provincial tabloid–a coarse, cynical burnout killing time till time kills him. Racked by a cancerous cough, he chain-smokes and guzzles gin, saying he intends to “enjoy myself while I’m here.” A paranoid racist, he packs a pistol and complains about the “wogs and Pakis taking over,” declaring, “I love this country. I won’t see it destroyed by slag . . . planting bombs and killing little kiddies.” Ian’s companion, Cate, is a skinny, stammering, thumb-sucking waif in her early 20s–vulnerable, childlike, and narcoleptic. “The world don’t exist,” she says, describing her frequent blackouts. “Not like this. Looks the same, but time slows down. A dream I get stuck in.”

Kane carefully rations the information she provides about Ian and Cate’s situation. They’re apparently former lovers–though the age difference suggests their relationship began as pedophilic abuse. “I love you, I want to make love to you,” Ian tells Cate, but she doesn’t want to. So he forces himself on her, shoving her hand into his pants to give him a “wanking,” thrusting his naked crotch in her face, and finally raping her. Her affection for him turned to hate, she heads off to the bathroom, declaring that she’s going to leave as soon as she’s showered.

Then comes the blast of war. A mortar shell blows a hole in the wall, making their emotionally charged conflict seem irrelevant. Anarchy has taken over the streets of Leeds. A grimy, rifle-toting soldier barges in, maddened by the atrocities he’s witnessed and committed. “Our town now,” he exults, marking his territory by pissing on the bed.

Did the rape trigger this breakdown of order? Or is the soldier’s incursion a fantasy–and, if so, whose? Is it Ian’s guilt-ridden, alcoholic hallucination or one of Cate’s narcoleptic dreams? All the audience knows is that the chaos Ian feared has come crashing into his room, and he has to fight for his life–and Cate’s. In the second half of the play, as suffering wears him down to a primal state, this self-destructive, dying man learns he will do and endure anything–anything–to survive.

With the Bosnian genocide in mind, Kane aimed to criticize Western indifference to hellish wars in other lands. “I write stories,” Ian says when the soldier asks him why he focuses on small-time local scandals rather than global conflicts. “This isn’t a story anyone wants to hear.” Now–as urban terrorism spreads into the streets of English and American cities and attention is riveted on Middle Eastern violence because of our presence there–the truth of Kane’s apocalyptic vision is clear.

A Red Orchid’s midwest premiere is nothing short of superb. The achievement of director Karen Kessler and her intensely committed cast–Guy Van Swearingen as Ian, Hans Fleischmann as the soldier, and Helen Sadler as Cate–is all the more impressive given the living-room intimacy of the 70-seat Old Town venue. Thanks to this production’s carefully modulated emotional dynamics and inventive design, the script–which ranges from terse irony to anguished yet eloquent accounts of wartime horrors to animal howls of pain and rage–is completely credible.

Kane, who studied theater at Bristol and Birmingham universities, was clearly influenced by Beckett and Artaud, Brecht and Buchner, Pinter and Shepard, Edward Bond and Howard Barker–and also by the Shakespeare of King Lear and Timon of Athens and the Sophocles of Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus. But in Blasted she speaks with an authoritative, authentic, and passionate voice all her own.

The despair it depicts notwithstanding, the play isn’t an exercise in nihilism. Kane translated her own battles with depression into philosophical statements about the need for hope, the urge to connect, the messy intertwining of love, lust, trust, and betrayal, and the impulse to believe in God despite all evidence to the contrary. Dramatizing the human condition as an eternal war between eros and chaos, Blasted is a timely work of tremendous intelligence and visceral impact.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Blasted photo by Andy Rothenberg.