A Wrenching, Illuminating ‘Crave’

HRDC production finds coherence in Sarah Kane’s abstruse meditations on loneliness and hidden pain

“I crave white on white and black, but my thoughts race in glorious technicolor, prodding me awake, whipping away the warm blanket of invisibility every time it swears to smother my mind in nothing,” proclaims a character named “C” (Mariel N. Pettee ’14) in Sarah Kane’s “Crave.” Kane’s play mimics this dilemma in its dialogue: the characters speak almost entirely in black and white one-line phrases, with no poetic descriptions and no flourishes, reveling in anonymity and confusion. Yet now and again a burning description lights up the play’s world—as well as our own—and forces us to see its desperate isolation, hidden pain, and unrealized desire.

“Crave,” which runs until October 8 in the Loeb Experimental Theater, represents minimalism at its finest. With neither plot nor stage directions, the play is meant to be anonymous; none of the four characters is called by name. Rather, each is referred to with only one letter—”A,” “B,” “C,” and “M”—and even these monikers are never spoken aloud. Kane’s dialogue runs freely from character to character, and she never specifies the audience for each line. On the page, “Crave” demands imagination to create an elucidating context; for an audience, it demands more than simple attention to comprehend; in the theater, it demands significant artistry to bring the play to life. In tackling this challenge, the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club delivers a successful, though at times shaky, rendition driven by skillful direction, design, and acting—aspects that come together to clarify the meaning of “Crave” by echoing its themes with more tangible theatrical devices.

“Crave” is an intentionally ambiguous play. Though the characters’ namelessness contributes to a powerful message about the isolation and futility of life, taken literally it also makes for characters so abstract that they are intangible. Both the actors and director Nasir W. Husain ’12 strike a balance of giving the play space for interpretation while still bringing the characters to life. Stewart N. Kramer ’12 (B), Emily B. Hyman ’13 (M), and Pettee maintain a level of obscurity sufficient to allow the play to carry its original meaning while imbuing their characters with a personality and emotion consistent with the text. Kramer is aloof and snarky, Hyman—fantastic as usual—is overtly sexual. Pettee is fearful and on the border of a nervous breakdown.

These additions are most powerful when they subtly come together to illuminate one of Kane’s otherwise difficult-to-detect meanings. Toward the middle of the play, A (Philip M. Gillen ’13) makes love to C with a stream of seductive words. “Don’t say no to me,” he says. “You can’t say no to me because it’s such a relief to have love again and to lie in bed and be held and touched and kissed and adored.” Pettee stands out in this moment as she deftly shifts from panicked gasps to ones of sexual pleasure in the middle of his speech and muddles the line between pleasure and fear. Though such a shift is not present in the text itself, it clarifies a similar but even more subtle confusion of pleasure and pain within Kane’s script as A pursues an unwilling C. Kramer and Hyman carry the play with this and other subtle actions that help explicate otherwise difficult messages.

“Crave’s” lighting design (by Bethina Liu ’13 and Gabrielle M. Walti ’14) is similarly successful, as it inventively creates shifts in mood that otherwise would pass unnoticed or even not exist. A third of the way through the play, Liu and Walti cut all lights except for a cleverly placed few that illuminate a white screen from behind. Husain has Gillen write on the wall as he speaks, “The question is, ‘Where do you live, and where do you want to live?’” The play takes a breather from its hurried atmosphere, a break that lends an eerie importance to Gillen’s words.

While Husain generally meets the challenge of allowing “Crave” the space its minimalist nature demands while clarifying its messages through concrete details, occasionally he falters. Sound design (by Husain and Christine E. Gummerson ’12) fluctuates between unhelpfully literal and downright distracting. At times, it is entirely superfluous, such as when Gillen scribbles with a marker on paper and Gummerson and Husain play a track of marker noise that competes with the characters’ voices. In such a small space, the excess noise is unnecessary, as proved when Pettee later writes with a marker, the sound of which carries on its own without distracting from her lines.

One of Husain’s most successful creative liberties lies in organizing the play’s dialogue. In the script, each character speaks in turn, though it is unclear to whom and whether or not there are multiple conversations occurring at once. With his placement of the actors on stage, Husain at times connects certain characters, allows them to speak alone, or encourages their speech to intertwine without bringing their conversations together. His blocking makes Kane’s free flow of words more understandable for the audience, an essential development in a dense play.

“Depression is inadequate. A full-scale emotional collapse is the minimum required to justify letting everyone down,” says C toward the middle of the play. Conversely, a superficial treatment of “Crave” is inadequate; the play demands a rendition in which all aspects of theater come together. Though the production occasionally falters, Husain is able to do just this. He creates a forceful and illuminating interpretation of a complex and abstruse play.

—Staff writer Keerthi Reddy can be reached at