Sunday, April 20, 2008
The harder they come
Ben Fainstein plots and plans in Howard Barker's A Hard Heart.
As I've written before, if this is the Athens of America, then it's a kind of Athens-through-the-looking-glass, where our well-funded university theatres ignore the best of what is written for the stage, and instead focus on second-rate texts generated by either their acolytes or a network of comrades-in-arms. Meanwhile, to get the real news on today's theatre, Bostonians must venture to the basement spaces in town, to the fledgling troupes founded on a wing and a prayer by recent college grads or those foolish enough to love theatre itself more than their theses on theatre. One such troupe is Whistler in the Dark, a band of (mostly) Middlebury College grads who in the last few seasons have tackled some of the most challenging texts in the postmodern canon. They first landed on the map with a flawed but still harrowing production of The Possibilities, a cool contemplation of the vicissitudes of war by British dramatist Howard Barker (below). Some two years later, they're back, with what is perhaps a lesser Barker, A Hard Heart, which ponders the costs a society is willing to bear in the fight against its enemies.
No doubt this paradox sounds all too familiar to those of us who've watched our civil rights go down as collateral damage in "the war on terror" - and hence, one feels, the current vogue for A Hard Heart, which dates from the early 90s but hasn't seen much production stateside until the last year or so. And alas, perhaps there's a reason for that obscurity: Heart is Barker at his most unvarnished, and most diabolically dialectical, with few of the baroque twists and or shocks that characterize his trademarked "Theatre of Catastrophe."
Not that there aren't catastrophes aplenty in Heart. The play - like much of Barker, it's an intellectual fable - follows the declining fortunes of the kingdom of Platea, ruled by a queen named Praxis (remember what I said about the play being unvarnished?), under siege from an implacable enemy - so implacable, in fact, that it has built an opposing wall right up against the wall-of-last-defense designed by Platea's self-described "genius," Riddler. With no way out, and literally up against the wall, Riddler (who doesn't so much spin riddles as embody one) turns inward for her next strategy, perceiving the only way out of Platea's dilemma is to make the city an unworthy prize while building up the cost of winning it. Thus the body politic begins to eat itself to fortify itself - eventually even the sacred places, the city's temples, fall to Riddler's ever-higher battlements.
As usual, the deadly solipsisms driving the logic of action ("my mind is engine-like in its perfection," Riddler tells us with characteristic modesty) is Barker's great theme, and he's at his best when his characters' arguments lead in unexpected, destabilizing directions rather than remaining stuck on a one-way track. But A Hard Heart feels as contained as its characters are, rather like a chamber piece (originally it was a radio play) pondering an escalating, but repetitive, dynamic. Its central interest is the mystery it conjures around Riddler - how she maintains her blindness to the destructive effects of her plans, all while shielding her personal life from their consequences (she insists on isolation and silence while concocting her plots, and saves her only son from conscription in the war she's running).
The irony here, of course, is that Barker openly disdains the illusions of atmospheric acting - and yet depends on it pretty much completely in A Hard Heart. His argument is too bare-bones to hold us through the play's length - it requires a major actress (such as Kathleen Chalfant, who recently did the piece in New York) with a fascinating presence to hold us through its repetitions. And alas, the Whistlers don't have access to Kathleen Chalfant. In fact, their usual director, Meg Taintor, takes on the role - and gives it the old college try, at least. But Ms. Taintor is simply too young, with too solid and wholesome a presence, to suggest the perverse, inner labyrinth of Riddler - much less insinuate the sick dynamic with her spoiled son (a too-cuddly Ben Fainstein). There's stronger work among the supporting cast - as queen Praxis, Eliza Lay, a mainstay of the local fringe scene, crackles on here, just as she did in Loves-Lies-Bleeding, and The Eight before that - I'm not sure what a girl has to do to win an IRNE or Norton nomination around here, because Lay seems overdue for both. Meanwhile Travis Boswell throws himself into the role of the homeless Seemore, who has his own implacable jones for Riddler - only he's actually not nearly disgusting enough to serve as her sexual nemesis, and he and Taintor throw off few of the salacious sparks of collapse.
Still, one can't help but applaud the Whistlers for again bringing a bit of the actual artistic life of the twenty-first century to the Hub. Those with a yen to understand the Way We Live Now would do well to ponder Barker's message, and the Whistlers' reach, if not their grasp - and to clamor for something like the same ambition from our larger houses, at least our university houses. It feels almost like some kind of bad dream that the great voices of our age - people like Barker or his cinematic cousin, Michael Haneke - should be so marginalized, while even our academic theatres behave like the equivalent of the Kendall Cinema, programming "arthouse" fodder (admittedly in two differing styles) for their respective alumni. Perhaps that's the riddle Howard Barker should ponder next.