nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
July 10, 2009
Howard Barker has always fascinated me as a playwright. I've read many of his plays, and even acted in one of them. However I'd never actually seen one of his plays, and I did so for the first time with Potomac Theatre Project's The Europeans. Strangely enough, I was shocked to discover how academic it all felt. And how much it seemed to be driven by ideas rather than story and character, to a point of dryness.
The Europeans takes place just after the Turkish invasion of Vienna at the end of the 17th century. Vienna is in shambles. People are starving, their lives are torn to pieces. It's a world of hunger and shrapnel. A military commander and hero of the resistance, Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney) emerges out of the struggle trying to press Vienna on to its next chapter, while king Leopold (Brent Langdon) fears change from the life they lived before the invasion. Amongst this struggle is a young woman, Katrin, who was raped, tortured, and impregnated by the Turks. Starhemberg takes an interest in her and sees a purpose for her in Vienna's renaissance.
It sounds rather plot-driven and intense—but it is unfortunately neither of these things. Rather, it's actually quite dull. It's not the fault of the production staff and cast, though. The show is beautifully staged by director Richard Romagnoli, with wonderful production values. The cast is incredibly talented and intense, and the lighting and sound design wonderfully capture the world of the play. All around, Barker's play is in very good hands here.
But the material does not seem to want to be a play, and therefore it feels devoid of character, intrigue, and plot. There is no driving force at the center to make me want to keep watching. Instead, it feels very much like an academic exercise: an idea here, an idea there, most of which are the usual suspects—sex and violence, war and peace, progressive vs. regressive, etc—all ideas and themes we've seen and heard countless times before, but this time with no real heart at the center of the play to make it worthy of being a work of drama. With two-dimensional characters, not much to speak of in the way of plot, and a sparsely described political and social context, it really seems much more like an essay-in-the-making than a living, breathing, dramatic piece of theatre.
It is, however, very well produced and conceived with such strong performances and a creative and talented production team. But there's not much they can do here to make an enjoyable and interesting night of theatre—and even the ideas feel somewhat overplayed and stale. The play just doesn't have the will that it could have to be a living piece of theatre rather than a dry meditation on themes.