Written by Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
The After-Dinner Joke
Written by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Cheryl Faraone
Presented by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2, NYC
July 10-August 5, 2018
With its thirty-second season, The Potomac Theatre Project, supported primarily by Vermont's Middlebury College, serves up a buffet of incisive drama, aiming, as befits the times, its Co-Artistic Directors write, not for "reassurance, but for clarity and community." The season consists of two evenings in repertory. The first is Brecht on Brecht, created from Bertolt Brecht's own words, drawn from the influential German's poetry, prose, works of musical theater, and elsewhere. The second, our focus here, consists of a double bill of two British artists: four selections from Howard Barker's 1980s decalogue of short plays, The Possibilities, paired with Caryl Churchill's satirical The After-Dinner Joke, originally written for the BBC and broadcast in 1978. The juxtaposition of these works produces intriguing resonances amidst a sometimes discomfiting, often funny, and always compelling experience.
Barker created the term "Theatre of Catastrophe" to describe his work, meant to be challenging, speculative, ambiguous, and linguistically rich. Indeed, director Richard Romagnoli employs excerpts from three of Barker's poems to construct a frame around and between the short plays of The Possibilities, and the excerpt that functions as a prologue positions the artist as a destroyer and agent of chaos. In the piece that follows, The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, a woman (Eliza Renner) acts as an envoy to the Biblical Judith (Kathleen Wise, instantly and forcefully magnetic) and her servant (Marianne Tatum) to convince Judith to abandon her self-imposed exile and return to the Israelites as a hero for having killed Holofernes. Judith, however, is less quick to draw a firm line between heroism and crime, between personal desire and political action: a betrayal that serves the people in whose name the woman appeals to her is nonetheless a betrayal. The second selection, Reasons for the Fall of Emperors, shares a concern with sacrifice for the state, and, like Unforeseen Consequences, includes a significant arbitrary exercise of power by the protagonist, although that may just be an expression of Judith's nature—she, like the artist in the poetic prologue, is associated both with destruction and creation, as she both murders and gives birth—and maybe of Alexander's too. Reasons considers sacrifice for the state from a slightly different angle, the sacrifice of the many for the one, specifically for the emperor, Alexander of Russia (Jonathan Tindle) rather than of the one for the many. Of course, the many are also arguably sacrificing for one another, but that is not how Alexander conceives of it -- he cringes as the sounds of his soldiers having their throats cut -- nor do the officer (Adam Milano) and the peasant (invested with fantastic depth and nuance by Christopher Marshall). With these two, Alexander debates strength, (feudal) duty, empathy, and the relationship of the ruler to the ruled, as well as, perhaps, one private individual to another. Not unlike King Lear, Alexander undergoes a symbolic stripping away of layers of clothing, not least those that signify his office, and it seems for a time as if the play is headed towards a condemnation of the elites' justification, articulated by the officer, of the deaths of the men whom they send into battle. Alexander's encounter with the peasant, though, complicates this common narrative.
Such complication features in all four of the short plays -- as the director's notes point out, Barker's characters upset expectations -- and Only Some Can Take the Strain forces the audience to revise its perception of its central character as the play progresses. Only Some sketches a dystopia in the tradition of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, in which a bookseller (Marianne Tatum) clandestinely sells her wares from a shopping cart for fear that they will be impounded or burned (she worries that she too may be burned). She says that she "act[s] the tramp" in order to better conceal her activities, though both the play and Tatum's performance leave some room to question how far we should trust her presentation of events; and she acts not only as a seller but also as a self-appointed gatekeeper, pricing books according to their "power" and judging who is worthy to purchase them. On the one hand, she (and the knowledge and creativity that she protects) is being policed, but on the other hand, she is engaging in a similar sort of policing, withholding books from those she deems unworthy. The seeming nobility of her cause hangs in balance with her use of "disseminator" as a slur toward a young man (Adam Milano) who energetically ignores the declaration imposed on the bookseller by a representative of the Ministry of Education (Eliza Renner). She asserts that we are "out of control when the oppressor has a human face" -- a dictum that we would do well to consider these days -- but to what degree is her own one of those faces?
The final selection, She Sees the Argument But, begins as the most comedic, with the audience again feeling safe perhaps with identifying with a young woman, played Madeleine Russell with an amusingly wholesome directness, against the official (Kathleen Wise) who is reprimanding her for showing her ankles. While this sounds like something from The Handmaid's Tale, the woman's honesty also turns out not to be the naivete that it first appears to be, and while shame is certainly a longstanding method of oppression and control, the officer argues that being seen solely through a sexual lens or using one's desirability as a weapon is not the same as freedom. Russell and Wise play very well off one another here, with Wise again skillfully suggesting crosscurrents beneath the surface of her character, and Milano makes the humorous most of his brief appearance as a man whose very presence throws the ankle-baring woman off her stride.
In his 1999 article "The Singer Solution to World Poverty," philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer contentiously concludes that the awareness that we chose to spend our money on non-essentials rather than on saving the lives of others "makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well, then that is the way things are." The title of Churchill's The After-Dinner Joke, the second half of the double bill, alludes to a 1976 book titled Pass the Port, collecting, as its subtitle tells us, "The Best After-Dinner Stories of the Famous," sold in the play by Oxfam to raise money, and exactly the kind of polite charitable commodity that allows us to escape any discomfort or thoughts of blame in connection with charitable donation (the book itself has had at least one sequel and currently is still listed, though as out of stock, in the used book section of Oxfam's website). Churchill satirizes the world of charities primarily through the experiences of Selby (Tara Giordano), an idealistic young woman whose corporate boss, Price (Jonathan Tindle, very good as a very different version of a powerful man from his Alexander of Russia), offers her a position with his charities when she tries to resign in order to "do good." From this beginning, and using a screen above the stage to define some locations and add some more jokes, the play sets a quick pace; and while Selby provides the throughline, some of the many scenes that speed by—entertainingly and only partly chronologically—are narratively connected while others are connected only thematically, some more substantial, and some almost like theatrical one-liners. Selby doggedly tries to maintain her belief that charity is apolitical, while the Mayor (Christopher Marshall), whose discussions of snakes, particularly their defensive measures, establish their own line of symbolism, challenges her to name literally one thing that isn't political. Selby is, unsurprisingly, increasingly forced to reevaluate how she thinks, including through several instances of international travel (Milano does a hilarious turn as a self-interested-to-the-point-of-paranoia businessman and fellow passenger on a flight) and one of kidnapping. Up against The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke comes across as much lighter in tone (though Barker's plays have plenty of comic moments), but it still makes plenty of uncomfortable points. A good example of this occurs in the great delivery by Giordano of an extended pitch by Selby for an ad campaign: it is funny because of its context in the play, but its actual content is simultaneously brutally cutting.
Among other targets, Churchill mocks sponsored activities, the need to always feel like we are purchasing something with a donation. The boy in the play who agrees to go through with the charity walk only when his mother promises him new sneakers is little different, it is suggested, than the sponsors who require him to walk in exchange for their donations. (While we were writing this, as it happens, we received from an animal charity to which we already send a monthly donation a calendar and the promise of two "free gifts" if we send money in return). The boy asks why people can't just give money if they want to -- must we "earn" charity for the ultimate recipients through symbolic labor? -- or, if that is unacceptable, why they can't sponsor him for watching television, which is actually a great question. Why not Netflix and chill AND solve endemic poverty? The play also critiques, through the example of coffee, tea, and sugar, the unconscionable exploitation that lies behind many of our consumer goods, as well as its ties to immigration issues, a discussion that remains painfully relevant despite having been written just over 40 years ago. At another point, a girl (Madeleine Russell) indignantly criticizes Selby's (and most people's/governments') conception of disaster relief as putting things back to just the way that exacerbated the disaster in the first place. The After-Dinner Joke points multiple times to and asks us to see the interconnection among people's resistance to (any) criticism or suggestion of blame or fault, the practice that we "help them just enough to help ourselves",' and the need for fundamental, systemic change, not ineffective band-aids that let people assuage their guilt.
While Churchill's play may feel timely in more specific ways -- calling to mind the trend towards tackling health care issues by crowdfunding one person at a time, viral "challenges" that raise nothing but "awareness," the ongoing disaster aid crisis in Puerto Rico, the contemporary analogues of the hypocritical celebrity played here with swaggering aplomb by Christo Grabowski -- the questions raised by Barker's short plays are equally relevant. PTP/NYC's production shows that these texts can speak to one another as vitally as they continue to speak to audiences. You could even make it your final luxury before giving the rest of your disposable income to charity. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler