Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Europeans

Photo/Stan Barouh

If you've seen the Potomac Theater Company before, chances are you've caught them producing Howard Barker, a notoriously--and intentionally--difficult playwright, one who chooses to use catastrophe (rape, siege, war) to explore the logical limits of morality. If you're looking for savage intellectualism this summer, The Europeans is a lot cheaper than vacationing in a war zone. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as vivid; the play is so restrained, both in performance and staging, that we're not really given a chance to wrestle with Barker's text.

It's really just a matter of the stakes not being raised high enough. The play opens at the end of the Battle of Vienna (1683), with Leopold, the Emperor of Austria (Brent Langdon), returning victoriously (despite having fled the siege). He's a self-depricating and deeply regretful ruler, which Langdon adroitly demonstrates, but it's hard to understand the depths of shame behind his stock phrase ("I laugh") without actually seeing the consequences of war. It's certainly no help that the heroic general, Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney) looks at the blood on his hands with such inhuman stoicism, nor that Lunney's acting is only slightly more expressive than that of David Hasslehoff.

Barker finds a more immediate martyr for his cause in Katrin (Aidan Sullivan), who struggles to recenter her world in light of the brutal rape committed against her. Her motives are clear, and when The Europeans speaks of turning the People's Art into one of shame, it takes on a powerful force. Romagnoli finds a wonderful martyr as well, for Sullivan is a ferocious performer. When she hurls her broken body and her recriminating words at Orphuls (Robert Zukerman), an ambitious priest, she makes the world around her larger than life. That's the point--she stresses--for it is all too easy for us to seek to compromise the sorrow of the past by painting a happy face on it, and Katrin refuses to do so, choosing the nunnery instead of her home, and planning a very public pregnancy--in which she hopes to die. This is the sort of clarity the rest of the play lacks:
Home is the instrument of reconciliation, the means through which all crime is rinsed in streams of sympathy and outraged doused, and blame is swallowed in upholstery, home is the suffocator of all temper, the place where the preposterous becomes the tolerable and hell itself is stacked on shelves. I wish to hold on to my agony, it is all I have.
Understandably, the other citizens seek different measures of restitution from the past, most notably Susannah (Megan Byrne), who starts out fucking priests for loaves of bread, only to actually fall for Orphuls, who offers something other than darkness. Unfortunately, what Zukerman brings to this role is an ill-fitting humor that makes it hard to take him seriously, especially when we learn that he has self-righteously killed his mother in an attempt to show the value of life--his own. Starhemburg's motives are also incredibly fuzzy: Romagnoli understands that Barker means for there to be juxtaposition in the image of the noble general swimming amongst the denizens of the sewers, but he can't capture it. Likewise, it's unclear what the choice to use anachronistic jazz music adds. (It underscores a line from the Empress, but so what.) And what of an almost laughably decapitated head? True, comedy is one way to change our view of the past, but that's hardly the point.

No, with the exception of Sullivan and Langdon, we're not given enough to buy into The Europeans. It's far too clean, too processed a production. If "anger makes hell tolerable," as Susannah avers, then Romagnoli needs to go much, much further to make hell intolerable. Where is the blood?

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