The work of Howard Barker, a British playwright whose plays over the past 40 years are unmistakable in their fierce theatricality and intellectual rigor, isn't produced very much. Reportedly, even his native country seems to overlook his prodigious output.
The excellent U.S. premiere of Barker's VICTORY: Choices in Reaction, produced by Potomac Theatre Project, might explain a bit of why that is. Not to suggest the production exposes demerits in the writing—on the contrary, Barker's energy is overpowering even on the page, with its barrage of intensity shifting constantly between the impassioned politic insight of a grizzled revolutionary and the juvenile irreverence of an inspired trickster. Oh, and the language—bouts of smut interspersed with political jousting, all with the precision of a classical poet with little use for classical structure.
No, what PTP's production suggests is that companies avoid Barker because it's so damn hard to pull off. Their understanding, not only of his ideas but of his roller-coaster aesthetic of incessant theatricality, is manifest in almost every element of this ambitious show, which barrels along like little I've seen in the past year.
The play, written in 1983, takes place during the English Restoration, when Charles II returned from exile to overthrow Oliver Cromwell's Republic, which Cromwell founded through the de-crowning and be-heading of Charles's father. The complicated politics of the period—the Commonwealth was a Puritan nightmare of repression (they shut down the theatres!) but also an imperfect attempt at liberalism that sought to free individuals from the tyranny of monarchy—provides the setting for a rambling play that mostly follows the journey of Susan Bradshaw, widow of one of Cromwell's top disciples, as she travels to reclaim her husband's disinterred body.
But any synopsis belies the play's freewheeling nature, which shifts from ideas often minute to minute, and traces dialectics on individualism, freedom, morality, business, etc., throughout. Richard Romagnoli's direction is superb—there is always movement on the stage, from the manic transitions between scenes to the meticulous business even in the quieter, two-person scenes. Alongside his excellent ensemble, Romagnoli succeeds at allowing the characters to broadly embody their grand archetypal shapes while still being grounded by the eccentricity of Barker's overflowing assaultive language.
Romagnoli's precision as a director doesn't inhibit the collaboration, though. His actors, a cast of 12 playing over 35 characters, all find ways to distinguish themselves through their own personal styles. Though Barker's work is less interested in emotion as the final goal, there are myriad moments of intense and realistic pain throughout, even if they're brushed quickly aside as the play careens to a different focus. Jan Maxwell as Mrs. Bradshaw exhibits magnificent emotional control as she shifts constantly between tragic victimhood and triumphant self-realization, both symptoms of the same situation and hence inexorably linked for the character. Robert Emmet Lunney is another highlight as he skirts the contradictions between viciousness and buffoonery without overplaying either. The dualities of the play are also exposed through Mark Evancho's lighting design, which underscores at various times the oppression and the freedom that exist in confronting unpleasant contradictions.
But in the end, each of us is going to see and admire totally different aspects of this production, so chock-full is it of amazing bouts of theatrical profundity. Like a great punk rock record full of two-minute songs about revolution and crisis, the experience of this show washes together, leaving me to wonder whether I was supposed to think or feel or act or despair … in short, PTP's done a magnificent job of pulling Barker off, and you'd be a fool to miss it.