Jimmy Wong and Aidan Sullivan as Katrin
Struggle to love spans the centuries
Potomac Theatre Projects potent plays poised to please
BY JERRY TALLMER
There is a painter in Howard Barkers The Europeans. Hes a court painter whose name we do not know. It is not Hieronymous Bosch or James Ensor or William Blake or Francis Bacon or Francisco Francisco Goya or George Grosz though all of these would seem to have joined forces in envisioning the grotesquerie and cruelty and naked laughter of this seething elliptical drama, set at a turning point in politico/religious human history that may be upon us again at this very moment.
It is 1683, and the harrowing Siege of Vienna has at last been lifted thanks to the Poles who routed and slaughtered a huge Turkish army that, at the gates of the city, had reached the high-water mark of an Islamic conquest of the Continent (which would now, with the Muslim tide turned back, fuse together as Europe).
Thanks also, in Barkers 1990 British scorcher, to the stoic, unflappable, ruthless yet curiously forward-looking commander of the citys garrison, a certain Ernst Rüdiger Von Starhemberg, whose basic tenet in life would seem to be (like Colin Powells): Me? I listen. When the spoiled, self-involved Empress Elizabeth demands: Are you loyal to the Hapsburgs?, commandant Starhembergs carefully calibrated reply is: I can conceive of no improvement in the nature of the government.
Starhemberg and Emperor Leopold and Empress Elizabeth are the only real characters, everything else is apocryphal, says Richard Romagnoli, director of the American premiere of The Europeans.
It is there in repertory with Thérèse Raquin, Neal Bells 1997 adaptation of Emile Zolas 1867 serialized novel and 1873 stage melodrama of love, marital infidelity, boredom, murder, and death the template of many a socko movie, French or otherwise, over the years directed by The Potomac Theatre Projects Jim Petosa.
Petosa, Romagnoli, and Cheryl Faraone (Mrs. Romagnoli), classmates at Catholic University some three decades ago, are the founding triumvirate of The Potomac Theatre Project (PTP), which put in 20 years and did hundreds of shows in the Washington, D.C., area before moving to the big town and shortening its moniker to those initials, three seasons ago.
PTP has long been closely tied in to Middlebury College, Vermont, which is where a student cast under Romagnolis direction did well this past April with Barkers outrageously difficult web of contradictions that at one moment, for instance, has you grieving for a young woman named Katrin whos been gang-raped, mutilated (her breasts cut off), and impregnated by the Turks and the next youre blinking your eyes as 19-year-old Katrin, having posed for anatomical drawings of her disfigurement, suddenly asks:
Shall this be printed, and in color?
I understand there was a publication
No, no, [not in learned journals] but in the shops
Assuredly, some six thousand copies
Yes, six thousand, I dont dream these figures
They printed fifteen thousand of Duke Starhemberg
he hangs in every pub, and eighteen thousand of the Emperor, why not
Later, making a public spectacle of the birth of the product of those rapes, Katrin like a young Barbra Streisand (or Sarah Palin) counts the house and is disappointed. Not as many as Id hoped
can everybody see all right? Some people over there the views restricted, surely.
Yet it is this same media-minded Katrin who, when at last she holds the infant aloft and then to her bosom, becomes, for director Romagnoli, nothing so much as a glowing 13th-century Madonna and Child. Or a sort of inverse Joan of Arc, leaving Orphuls, a smarmy Shavian priest, to hunger for bread and a Bishopric; ineffective Emperor Leopold to diddle away in search of a new national form of art (or Art); and Starhenberg to dream of shaping the New Man of the new Europe.
This play, says Ronagnoli, takes a great deal of digging by the actors, and a great deal of trust by the audience. Its enigmatic for the audience, yet compelling. Barker doesnt leave a message in blazing neon. But at the end, all its parts come together like beads on a necklace.
Romagnolis previous stab at a work by Barker was a couple of years ago with No End of Blame, based on the life and journeys of Hitler-era Viennese political cartoonist Victor Weiss.
Pretty simple compared to The Europeans, says the director who has known Howard Barker since 1996 and describes him as tall and nattily but not foppishly dressed, a proper English gentleman though far from highborn whose own theater company, you must remember, is called The Wrestling Match (and whose stuff as a whole is often called the Theater of Catastrophe).
The Europeans and Thérèse Raquin were each chosen by their directors Romagnoli and Petosa to open PTP/NYCs 23rd repertory season, There would seem to be, in Romagnolis words. no thematic connection between them but then he stops and interjects:
except that the full title of the Barker play is The Europeans: Struggle to Love.
Surely in Neal Bells stunning adaptation of Zolas slow-burning, seething, fact-based masterpiece of socio-sexual hatred and short-fused sexual passion there is struggle aplenty. Barkers Katrin in one century, Zolas Thérèse two centuries later, are sisters under the skin for our own. The past isnt dead, said Faulkner. It isnt even past. As long as theres a theater
At The Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)
For tickets, 212-279-4200 or www.TicketCentral.com