Gag Me

The one thing really lacking in today's theater experience is lots of dick. And the West Coast premiere of Sarah Kane's dark and dirty play Cleansed, directed by Dave Barton, should fill your quota for the next 10 years. Cleansed is, in a word, grody. But not really in a bad way. When you're locked in a prison/mental ward/psycho rehab center with rusty, filthy showers; blood- and urine-stained floors and walls; and lots of power tools lying about, you can't help but get the heebies.

Dr. Tinker (Jay Fraley) is the Nurse Ratched gone mad with a hatchet of a random rehab prison located in some town, any year. Inmates/patients are shaven-headed, slender men, each with a problem—drugs, homosexuality, incest. Tinker uses extreme measures to rid them of their vices.

That's when the gross parts come. It was sort of fun watching the other audience members squirm in their seats when two male inmates (sexy Bryan Jennings and endearing Stephen Wagner) simulate copulation. But when Tinker pretended to ram a crowbar up the anal shaft of Wagner, even I revisited the nausea I felt while sitting through Requiem for a Dream. But unlike Requiem, the gore-fest of Cleansed lacks motivation. Granted, the mutilations fit the crime—Wagner gets his hands and feet chopped off after he tries to express his love for Jennings manually (his tongue was cut out just moments before for speaking of love)—but random humiliations, electrocutions, sex-change operations and masturbations (of which there are a helluva lot) raise a few questions. Cleansed might just be a grotesque torture of the mind, body and soul by a really sick fuck, or it might be a comment on the willingness of people to let someone mutilate them just because he earned a Ph.D. Since we're never really told why these patients/inmates are caged up (see: I don't even know what they are) or what Tinker's after with all this slice and dice, finding the message is difficult.

What isn't difficult, however, is recognizing brilliant directing and actors with the courage to take risks. On this, Cleansed delivers completely. And even though Kane's dialogue is mildly irritating in its forced surrealism, and we don't really know what we're supposed to take from this bloody tale, I can't remember the last time I did take a play home with me. Maybe Kane won after all.

Cleansed by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co. at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; July 3, 8 p.m. Through July 7. $12-$15.

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