Monday, February 21, 2011

Barker's bark, and his bite

Does it make sense if my current critical position is "We need more classics - just not the really impossible ones?"

Let me explain. As the meanest critic around, my usual song of woe is that I'm stuck watching talented actors try to breathe life into sludge like Afterlife, or clever-but-empty sitcoms like The Understudy. We've now got the local chops to take on greater challenges, I find myself droning over and over - so why not try?

And to be honest, a few troupes have tried of late - only with texts like Ajax and Cymbeline and Henry IV, Part II. Texts that are obscure, frankly, for a reason - they're the "classics with issues"! Worth doing, yes (of course), but as part of fulfilling a whole program rather than just filling a slot in a season. A company commits to scripts like Cymbeline or Ajax when it has a core of actors who are highly skilled, and conversant with the idiom, and familiar with one another.

In other words - you have to learn to walk before you run the marathon, okay?

Which brings me to Whistler in the Dark's new production of Howard Barker's The Europeans - a play that isn't quite a classic (and might never achieve the status, say, of Barker's Scenes from an Execution or The Possibilities), but shares with gnarly texts like Cymbeline a level of intellectual challenge that the vast majority of "new plays" never aspire to.  In point of fact, Whistler consistently operates at the highest level of intellectual accomplishment of any troupe in the Boston area (yes, well over the heads of Harvard and B.U.).

Indeed, The Europeans is almost nothing but intellectual challenge; it's even a challenge figuring out what the play itself is about - because "What should this play be about?" is, in a way, Barker's theme.  Or rather "What should Europe be about?" is his theme - or maybe "What do you think Europe should be about?" (followed by the inevitable rejoinder "Well, you're WRONG!").

For this Howard Barker (at right) is an argumentative fellow; not for nothing was his theatre named "The Wrestling School."  His dramaturgy is all about pedagogy of a sort - that is, of the cruelest, most contradictory sort.  Barker likes to call his style "The Theatre of Catastrophe" because he repeatedly hurls his characters into extreme circumstances, in which they must make the harshest choices imaginable - but always without moral context, or anything like complete knowledge of the meaning of their decisions. In short, their situation is that of real life - moral paradoxes pondered in ignorance (while God looks on) - only intensified and made ruthlessly abrupt.  Barker's characters must make their way in the dark - they are, in fact (need I say it?) "whistlers in the dark" (indeed, it's from a bit of Barker verse that the Whistlers derive their name).

Debating the point of debate in The Europeans.
But The Europeans (at left) is pitch-black even by Barker's standards; it operates more as an ongoing interrogation of itself than a drama per se.  And needless to say, a script committed to self-questioning requires the kind of confidently charismatic acting that operates independent of "character" and "plot" (since both concepts are under continual assault).  That the Whistlers come up with one or two performances of this caliber is remarkable in a fringe troupe; still, I'm afraid the cast of The Europeans is variable enough that a good chunk of the script slides into obscurantist badgering, despite the best intentions of everyone involved.  (Sometimes, in this nightmare of the dark, all of Barker's dogs seem to merely bark.)

Unlike most of the playwright's dramas, The Europeans opens right after a catastrophe: in its first scene, the dazed citizens of Vienna awaken to the fact that the long siege of their city in 1683 has ended, and that they have triumphed over the Ottoman Turks.  They have "saved" "Europe."  But what is "Europe" - or rather, what could, or should it be, beyond a collection of territories held together by bayonets?

Clearly what the Viennese fought for wasn't worth saving - their rulers are cowards, and their clergy is corrupt.  And the horror of the conflict is still omnipresent - people now babbling about culture have recently been dining on rats, and in the local parks picnickers treat severed heads as playthings.  Meanwhile the Turks have merely fallen back to positions a bit further from the city walls.

So nothing is stable in this dehumanized environment, but suddenly anything is possible, and that's Barker's point as he sends two key characters through its maze of contradictions - Starhemberg, the military hero who is himself a kind of cipher; and Katrin, a "citizen" who survived a brutal rape by the Turks (during the course of which her breasts were cut off, in a classic Barker flourish) only to find she is now heavy with child.

From this pregnant (sorry) set-up the script lurches forward as a kind of moral gross-out crossed with a digressive dialectic. But Barker's larger point slowly comes clear: that pain must be the basis of any honest form of art (his own M.O., conveniently enough).  And at the level of bald statement, the Whistlers do put this over.  But at the same time the author clearly intends for a dramatic focus of sorts to form around Starhemberg and Katrin as their paths intertwine - and at this I'm afraid the Whistlers (and director Meg Taintor) are less successful.  As the military hero moves from interrogation to action, he is slowly revealed as Barker's personal factotum, as well as a quasi-mystical puppet master, with Katrin and her child serving as unwitting pawns in his plan to both resolve history and escape from it.  (That this "reconciliation" should prove as cruel as anything that has come before should surprise none of Barker's fans.)

But I'm afraid as Starhemberg, actor Curt Klump limns little of these developments; Klump has done solid work in the past, when he has had less ambiguous material to work with; but alas, his Starhemberg isn't so much a cipher as a blank.  Which is too bad, because he's working against a brilliant performance from Jen O'Connor as Katrin.  This Whistler mainstay by now has Barker in her blood, and her battered, defiant Katrin seems to channel the playwright's manner with deadly accuracy.  Meanwhile, as the absurdly corrupt priest Orphuls (who longs to off his own repellent mother), the usually-reliable Scott Sweatt goes slightly wrong in his purring sensuality; this guy should just be funnier, oddly enough, and somehow Sweatt never finds the correspondences with Starhemberg that Barker seems to be hinting at.  Around the edges of the production, there's a fine cameo from Elizabeth Rimar as that disgusting mother (by far the best work I've seen this young actress do), and as Katrin's sensible sister, Marie Polizzano (who was so subtle in Circle Mirror Transformation) finds good moments here and there, but still seems to think she's working at Annie Baker's scale (which she's not).  Elsewhere there's solid work from Nate Gundy as the fatuous Emperor Leopold, and an amusing turn from Dakota Shepard as his Empress (although she misses the fact that while the lady's crazy, she's made of solid steel).  Meanwhile Evan Sanderson made a good impression in a variety of smaller roles.  But alas, Dan Grund didn't make much of an impression at all as the Court Painter - a serious gap in a play with a particular focus on what art can mean when we're all in the dark.

Barker skeptics may find this acting patchwork evidence to support the growing consensus that the playwright is a bit of a poseur - a self-appointed Grand Inquisitor with a slightly-dated outlook of outrage whose obsession with incoherence gets him off the hook of having to develop a coherent play.  But the Whistlers do mine enough dramatic gold here to convince me that Barker's bark still has bite - in the abstract, at least - and intermittently, The Europeans is certainly gripping (whether or not we like what we see in its dark mirror of history).  Intrepid theatre-goers, who wonder at what new ideas this ancient form can offer, won't want to miss it.

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