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Amid nothingness, something profound

Isabelle Huppert creates terrifying intensity as the suicidal subject of a Minimalist '4.48 Psychose' at UCLA.

October 07, 2005|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

It can be a beautiful thing to turn into a tree, to be one among your "green brothers," to have your suicidal remorse now calmed. Your arms are branches outstretched. You shelter heroes. You are blessed by the gods. The forest sounds are exquisite at night. You are the protagonist of Richard Strauss' opera "Daphne."

That's myth. That's opera. And that's not what it's really like to be a tree at all.

Wednesday night, Isabelle Huppert stood all but rooted to the stage of UCLA's Freud Playhouse for one hour and 45 minutes. Her feet never moved. Her arms hung down at her side, equally immobile, her hands clutched in heavy fists. Indeed, she rarely moved below her neck, the muscles of which remained tense and prominent all evening. Her expression did not change much, either. Her face had little color. A beautiful actress looked bad, even one with a taste for degrading roles. At the point of suicide, she was drained of resolve. But she could still mutter. Boy, could she mutter.

This is how the French film star made her American stage debut.

The occasion was Sarah Kane's play "4.48 Psychosis," translated into French as "4.48 Psychose," in a production brought from Paris as part of UCLA Live's International Theater Festival. Last season, UCLA Live had imported the original London production of "4.48 Psychosis," the suicidal poetic fragments the immensely gifted 28-year-old British playwright jotted down just before she hanged herself in 1999.

Depressing as it left you, that production, with its inventive lighting, its clever projections, its actors reflected in fractured angles on ceiling mirrors, seemed all light and dazzle compared with what Claude Regy has done with the text in his exquisitely refined, Minimalist French-language version. Bits of video or music (including bits of Jeff Buckley) that exist are ghostly.

The play, which Kane described as "a solo symphony," doesn't have characters as such other than its suicidal subject who is approaching 4:48 a.m., that moment when the mind will reach mental clarity and when action can then be taken. But her ruminations on pain, drugs, friendship, medication, the rupture of the soul, the decompression of the body, the need to vanish, imply other figures. A doctor? A lover? An alter ego?

The "other" in this case is an actor in red pants and an orange T-shirt, Gerard Watkins, as inert as Huppert, who occasionally appears behind a scrim. He is her reflection and her gadfly.

Watkins is excellent, but it is almost as though he doesn't exist. Huppert, who stands in harsh light in front of a dark scrim on which occasionally numbers are projected, challenges us with the severe violence of her immobility. There is but a narrow range of expression in her voice, but her intensity is such that the slightest rise or dip in pitch, the slightest change in volume, is terrifying. When, once or twice a finger moves, you sense an impending earthquake.

And what this brings, in a performance that will be long remembered and analyzed, is a sense of the meaning of life that is utterly chilling. You know from the moment the light hits her on the black stage she is a hopeless case. Whatever resolve is needed to live, she's lost. The body won't respond. But the mind is swirling. Words, often wonderful words, the sounds of nature and childhood, burble forth. A wry humor seems to hide behind the horrors. Nothingness is profoundly something.

Most of all, Huppert's horrifyingly honest performance is supremely musical -- alarmingly un-Straussian, perhaps, but amazingly operatic. Her extraordinary enunciation of each French phoneme goes beyond meaning. It might seem tough on audience members who don't understand French. Regy has chosen to translate but a fraction of the text on the supertitles lest they impede the connection between audience and the stage. For some, the connection will be lost by not understanding, and there were many who did not stick it out Wednesday.

Regy writes in his program note, "The language of the soul is immaterial." Immaterial, it may be, but it is not incorporeal. It is not inaudible. Huppert becomes the syllables she intones. The distress is real, draining. But this great, daring actress captures the incomprehensible distance between life -- no matter how unendurable -- and no life.


'4.48 Psychose'

Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood

When: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $40 to $50

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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