New York Times review, SERIOUS MONEY
Published July 14, 2012
New York Times Theater Review | 'Victory: Choices in Reaction'
Published: July 20, 2011
Puritan Widow Confronts a Randy, Profane King by Anita Gates
What is a lone Puritan widow in 1660s England to do when the Restoration government digs up her husband’s body, decapitates him posthumously and puts his head on a pike? If she is a character written by Howard Barker and played by the incomparable Jan Maxwell, she sets off on a journey to collect the pieces, no matter what that trip might do to her.
It would be nice to leave it there and say that “Victory: Choices in Reaction” is just a study of that woman, known as Bradshaw, and of her randy monarch, Charles II, recently restored to the throne. But the characters and plot of this 1983 play, now having its long-overdue American premiere in PTP/NYC’s production at the Atlantic Theater’s Stage 2, are just jumping-off places for a torrent of crudely eloquent messages about politics, character and action.
The show’s energy — shot from a cannon by Richard Romagnoli, the director — blazes like fireworks in the hands of an outstanding ensemble cast. Each time you think the multi-Tony Award-nominated Ms. Maxwell has just done the raw-emotional-peak scene of the evening, she tops it with the next one.
David Barlow plays King Charles like a rock star, exuding entitlement, making pronouncements as if every word were brilliant and casually but aggressively having sex with a mistress (Michaela Lieberman) in front of a crowd of his followers.
Charles never gets his comeuppance, but he does acknowledge the limitations of his powers in a high-impact scene set in the vaults of the Bank of England, commenting on the rise of the true ruling class: bankers.
This is a bawdy play, with four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms pouring forth constantly. And Mr. Barker’s fondness for anachronism extends to language. (The king admits in Act I, “I did not actually like my dad.”)
There are appearances by a famous prostitute, Nell Gwynn (Ele Woods), and a famous poet, John Milton (Alex Cranmer). With those cameos, rich multiperiod costumes, fast-moving scenery and hard-rock scene-changing music at top volume, the production could have come off as all style. But Mr. Barker, a 65-year-old British playwright with an international cult following, is far too purposeful for that. He has things to say.
“Victory” is playing in repertory in this season by the former Potomac Theater Project with Steven Dykes’s “Territories” and Neal Bell’s “Spatter Pattern or, How I Got Away With It.”
Scene 4Q, Michael Bettencourt: The Geographies of Betrayal
Territories by playwright Steven Dykes is a diptych of plays, a light gathering of dust and Spoils. Each play reflects the other's concerns about trust and betrayal, and the practice of both in oppressive political situations. While Spoils is over-long and uncertain of its target, a light gathering of dust hits more closely to home with its story of distrust and desire.
A Light Gathering of Dust takes its historical cue from the public airing of the secret files of the Stasi, the East German secret police, when the two Germanys were unified in 1990. People could read their files, though names and other information had been black-lined out, and it was estimated that 2% of the population coöperated with the Stasi to inform upon people close to them.
Director Cheryl Faraone strews the stage with hundred of redacted documents to indicate this time and place, and at times the actors paw through them to read about themselves, remarking that the obsessive detail ("pornographic," one character calls it) mirrors back to them lives they do not recognize, though they are clearly their own.
The story at the heart of A Light Gathering of Dust concerns a triangle of lovers among two women and a man, and how one of the women decides to inform upon the other two. The reason for her betrayal is both personal and political -- in fact, under the constant pressure of surveillance, it is impossible to unknot the two. What the opening of the files does is fill the air with the dust that comes from excavated secrets, breathed in and breathed out, and these three are forced to unify within themselves what the reunified Germany tells them about who they were, are, and hope to be.
(On a side note, the play begins with a wonderfully mysterious and evocative theatrical image. Alex Draper is on a bed, belly-down, wearing nothing but underwear. Before Stephanie Janssen begins her monologue, Megan Byrne enters, leans over, and with a gentle breath blows a thin scrim of dust off his skin, which swirls away in the light.)
Spoils is set in a recently conquered unnamed desert country, where Shilling (Alex Draper), an interrogator who speaks the local language, questions four women who worked as secretaries in various ministries. It is never quite clear what he wants from them, though it has to do with learning about how the party, to which all functionaries belonged, encouraged both loyalty and treachery.
Shilling is also interested in the degree to which art (in the guise of a musical composition by Paul Englishby), allied with interrogation, can redeem and re-grace those who have sinned. He not only wants information; he wants their salvation, too.
Each of the five characters gets a good chunk of stage time to talk about himself or herself, and while it isn't always clear how the long renditions link to Mr. Dykes' purpose, they are all expertly delivered, with Mr. Draper's disquisitions on the structure and meaning of the music conveyed with his usual masterful skill.
As is always the case with anything the Potomac Theatre Project creates, the production values are excellent, the direction is sure-handed, and the acting is vibrant, spacious, and assured. In a light gathering of dust, Mr. Dykes strikes the right balance between revelation and mystery, and it is a delight to watch the ease with which the three actors navigate the time and emotional shifts of the play. In Spoils, Mr. Dykes has all the elements for a sharp, ironic take on the distorted dance of power, principle, and truth. He just needs to take that play within the play that he has and edit it into the daylight.
SPATTER PATTERN: Or, How I Got Away With It
Tate (Adam Ludwig) is a college professor and Iraq War veteran who is suspected of seducing and murdering one of his students. Although there isn't enough evidence to hold him in custody, word of the accusation gets around, and his neighbors regard him with a mixture of grim suspicion and morbid curiosity. A gay writer named Dunn (Jeffries Thaiss) rents the apartment next door, and though he initially views Tate as nothing more than a promising subject for a script, their mutual wariness gradually gives way to a deeper, more empathetic connection.
It's easy enough to see what ties them together: Both of them are haunted, figuratively, by the dead. Tate's life is dominated by the specter of the student he may or may not have murdered, while Dunn broods over the memory of a dead lover whose ashes he has recently collected.
Director Jim Petosa and scenic designer Hallie Zieselman opt for an appropriately muted, bare-bones visual style, making effective use of a distorting mirror and a single all-purpose gray cube. At least initially, the play is easier to respect than to love—the type of thing one is apt to describe as "interesting" without feeling much of an emotional investment—but it grows on you, seeming richer in retrospect than it did while unfolding in real time. The two leads bring winning flashes of humor to their tortured characters, and Lucy Van Atta and Christo Grabowski provide lively support in multiple roles.
RACHEL SALTZ, The New York Times
GARY THE THIEF & PLEVNA: Meditations on Hatred
Listen. Listen harder. That’s what the British playwright Howard Barker needs you to do during “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,” his two short, dense plays produced by the Potomac Theater Project/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2. Theater is elastic, he reminds us, and proceeds to stretch our definitions of it. Mr. Barker, also a poet, describes his work as a Theater of Catastrophe in which, as it says in the program, “no attempt is made to satisfy any demand for clarity or the deceptive simplicity of a single message.”
Rachel Crouthamel, Show Business
LOVESONG OF THE ELECTRIC BEAR
Every scene in PTP/NYC’s New York premiere of Lovesong is infused with a sense of childlike wonder. Whimsical fantasy meshes with harsh reality, and the end result is two hours and 20 minutes of thought-provoking entertainment. Under the direction of Cheryl Faraone, the action moves fluidly. All of the production’s design elements, particularly the visually striking projections, enhance the surreal atmosphere. Whether he is suffering the indignities of adolescence, passionately discussing hyperboloids or making valiant attempts to connect with other human beings, Alex Draper’s nuanced portrayal of Turing is thoroughly compelling to watch. An energetic ensemble of eight actors covers more than 20 roles, the performers transitioning between distinct characters without a hitch....Tara Giordano as Porgy Bear and Draper have an intrinsic chemistry, and they charm the audience with their superb comic timing.
By incorporating skillfully acted private moments and a healthy dose of dark humor, Lovesong of the Electric Bear makes the sometimes-obscure subject matter accessible. A complex portrait that gives equal weight to Turing’s scientific achievements and personal tribulations, this production is an imaginative tribute to the brilliant scientist.
BRENDON LEMON, The Financial Times
A QUESTION OF MERCY
Based on a New York Times essay by Richard Seltzer, Rabe’s play gets short shrift in dissections of his work. And yet, with the exception of his Hollywood masterpiece Hurlyburly, A Question of Mercy strikes me as Rabe’s most incisive effort. The Potomac Theatre Project, which specialises in the dramas of socially concerned playwrights, deserves praise for bringing the staging to New York. Plaudits are due to Potomac, whose co-artistic director, Jim Petosa, stages Mercy a little like a chess game amid four chairs and a coffee table for an affecting production. Rabe’s drama is less about the politics of Aids than about the process – the legal and pharmaceutical risks – of ending a life. Mercy does not rehearse the reasons for suicide as thoroughly as Marsha Norman’s play ’Night, Mother. Yet I felt that mercy had been given a much more complete examination than in The Merchant of Venice, currently in an over-praised Central Park production that stars Rabe’s daughter, Lily. Of Mercy’s cast, Tim Spears gives the standout performance as the lesion-marked Anthony, with Alex Cranmer in stolid support as Thomas. I could barely take my eyes off the Dr Chapman of Paula Langton, who slightly resembles the Irish actor Fiona Shaw.()
NEIL GENZLINGER NY Times
A year ago the Potomac Theater Project came to town with a dynamite version of Howard Barker's "Scenes From an Execution," a play about a female Renaissance painter that was carried by a whirlwind performance from Jan Maxwell in the lead role. This year for its summer residency the company, now calling itself PTP/NYC, has set itself a more difficult task with “The Europeans,” another play by Mr. Barker that isn’t a star vehicle and doesn’t offer the tidy messages theatergoers might be conditioned to expect in the lazy days of summer. But the lively acting and Richard Romagnoli’s seamless direction again make the company stand out amid the season’s fluff and fringiness as one to turn to for serious work....This fine production will certainly have you speculating afterward.
AARON RICCIO Showdown
Neal Bell's brilliant adaptation of Émile Zola's 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin puts a stake through the heart of dry naturalism. With a sense of Ibsen's modernism, he focuses on the stark apathy Raquin feels toward marrying her cousin, Camille ("I can't be frightened to death; I'm already dead and this is hell"), which is all the better for showing her sexual awakening at the hands of the roguish Laurent. Adding to this is Jim Petosa's romantic direction, which finds clever ways to mix such morbidity with dashes of sweetness: ravenous passion, indeed. Much credit to the cast, too: as Raquin, Lily Balsen (like a younger, more innocent Helena Bonham Carter) is haunted by an actual ghost, but what moves us is the way she is haunted by genuine regret. It's a shame that Scott Janes isn't allowed such range, but his Laurent is nonetheless solid, as are the terrific turns of Willie Orbison (Camille) and Helen-Jean Arthur (Camille's mother), both of whom are sharpened by a different sort of passion: rage. It's easy to be poetic, but hard to justify such language, as Thérèse Raquin has done. That's easy to say, but not at all hard to believe for those who have seen it.
PATRICK LEE Theatre Mania
Howard Barker's The Europeans, currently getting its U.S. premiere at Atlantic Stage II courtesy of the Potomac Theatre Project, vividly depicts a skewed moral universe in the aftermath of war in which the most lingering nightmare may be the collective human tendency to learn so little. But the complex, often challenging, and sometimes gravely funny play resists simple characterization -- and, to its credit, avoids reduction to one simple message. While not easy to digest or fully appreciate in one viewing, the play is fascinating and provocative, and the production, guided by Richard Romagnoli, is often compelling.
© The Potomac Theatre ProjectPotomac Theatre Project is affiliated with the Theatre Program of Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont.