nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
September 29, 2007
How many possibilities for framing the human struggle with war—literally and figuratively—does playwright Howard Barker want us to contemplate in one sitting? It turns out that there are ten. The Possibilities, which is receiving its New York premiere from Collective Productions and Inner Circle Theater Company, consists of ten short vignettes of shocking visuals that attempt to capture nuanced and ambiguous human behavior—or mostly misbehavior. Through bizarre events or fable-like snapshots we are confronted with ills that often lead to conflict: sexual repression, censorship, racial and religious hatred, and hypocrisy. We get the feeling that Barker could go on for another ten.
That is not to say that the overall tone of the play is despairing, nor the outlook pessimistic. Presented in an absurdist style, the pieces can be humorous and even compassionate. My favorite is "Only Some Can Take the Strain," a satiric look at knowledge and its costs with a hopeful message. Set in a police state, an old bookseller risks loss of livelihood and even jail time by selling rare and banned books. However, he is paranoid—perhaps justifiably so—and suspicious of anyone approaching him for his precious books. To a man who is eager to buy one long-sought title, the bookseller accuses, "You are the police....That explains your hunger for the title. Only the police show such persistence in the tracking down of literature," and turns him away. When a woman from the Ministry of Education comes to seal his cart, he sing-songs almost with relish, "I was expecting you! All these years I was expecting you!" Finally the earlier man returns and breaks the seal: "I need the knowledge, why be put off? Knowledge only comes to the one who perseveres." Angus Hepburn is captivating as the bookseller.
"She Sees the Argument But" is a fascinating take on society's obsession with covering up our bodies, especially the female ones. A young woman with fitting clothes and a dress showing her ankles, her eyes outlined, is brought in to see an older female official. The latter wants to "understand," but believes that the young woman's inappropriate way of dressing is "a positive encouragement to criminality." It is a study in sexual-longing-turned-self-deprivation, and lamentably still pertinent in our day and age. Maureen Mooney gives a finely-layered performance as the official.
Full of mythical lure and brilliant physical acting, "The Dumb Woman's Ecstasy" is about a professional torturer who checks in to an inn of sorts, run by a deaf mother and her son who may be hazardous to their guest's health. The torturer, a man well-acquainted with deceit and treachery, turns the tables and takes over. He is fascinated and oddly moved by a silent plea from the mother for her son's life, something he has not experienced before. A master of pain and craftsman of death, his philosophical musings can give the listener chills. Fred Rueck is utterly convincing as the weathered and self-innocent torturer. Mooney appears again, this time as the mother (and you won't recognize her!) and will blow you away.
Other shorts are equally challenging and entertaining. Barker intends for them to be seen as one coherent play, and a forum can probably be held just to articulate and debate the pieces' interrelationships. "The Possibilities"... of what? If I have to come up with my own answer—and I think the beauty of the whole exercise is for each audience to answer in his or her own way—it is about the possibilities of "being moral, even if socially wrong." These are not so much ambiguities as choices. Is one willing to make them and accept the cost?
Director Albert Aeed gives each story its own center and gravity, and threads them with consistent tension. One ingenious touch by Aeed is having a different actor sitting on the stage watching each short, along with the audience. The transitions between shorts are artfully choreographed. One gets the impression of traveling over times and places and seeing the steps of others in front of our own—like time capsules of human strife that are written in codes of poetry and framed as urgent questions.