Cleansed | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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CLEANSED, Defiant Theatre, at the Viaduct Theater. A line from an epitaph for playwright Sarah Kane--"Mental illness is pointless, undignified, and ultimately, always physical"--could easily describe her excruciating play. Cleansed offers a blurred allegory of society-as-institution, institution-as-society that's frankly banal and uninformative, bluntly mirroring insanity's exitless maze. Its obsessions are alienatingly personal, its logic circular, its eruptions of violence more assaultive than cathartic. Nonetheless it's remarkable: Kane, who committed suicide in 1999 following several hospitalizations, tangibly communicates the despair of madness, as does Defiant's lyrically brutal production.

Set designer Martin McClendon has wrought a minor masterpiece of menace, a two-tiered affair of glowing white translucent walls, empty rows of shelves, and glassy doors that slide this way and that into myriad permutations of dustless clinical desolation. Stage blood and red lights splash this canvas with gore whenever the underlying cruelty of Kane's dreamscape comes lashing out; effects like snow, rain, and flowers blooming are brought gorgeously to life through a combination of projected image and inventive stagecraft. The sound track is clever and well suited to the material--"Dreams Never End," a New Order song composed in the shadow of Ian Curtis's suicide, introduces the piece, then plays garbled and backward near the end. Under the expert direction of Lisa Rothschiller, an exceptionally strong cast, led by Barb Wruck Thometz and Guy Van Swearingen, rip through Kane's theater-of-atrocity paces. This is not a great play, but in Defiant's hands it almost seems one. --Brian Nemtusak

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