By Bill Marx
I narrate disintegration among rulers
And the kindness of the enemy
I report the speed at which fear grips the innovative
And the intolerable loneliness of the habitually free
— From Howard Barker’s poem “Gary Upright”
A Hard Heart by Howard Barker. Directed by Richard Romagnoli.
Presented by Whistler in the Dark Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through April 26.
Playwright Howard Barker epitomizes his vision of the Faustian urge in the poem “Gary Upright,” whose narrator proclaims himself to be a ‘god unnamed.’ Barker’s art often focuses on the furies of the will-to-power unchained: the consequent construction and destruction ends with the meltdown of an ego blind to its own fallibility. For Barker, the residue of instinct and/or hope that remains after the catastrophe testifies to the elemental vitality, the primal resilience of humanity.
At its best, his version of the tragic fall evokes the messy burnout of Shakespeare rather than the cartoon martyrdom of Ayn Rand: every aspect of Barker’s overweening characters is oversized – their flaws are writ as large as their genius.
“Gary Upright” was written in 1987, a year before the premiere of his play “The Possibilities,” an evening of short plays whose juicy enigmas, revolving about egotists of various sizes, were very ably staged in 2006 by Whistler in the Dark Theatre. With “A Hard Heart” the company tackles Barker again, which is all to the good, but the admirable troupe picks a script, written in 1992, that presents him at his most schematic.
“A Hard Heart” comes off as a parable of the rise and puncturing of a ballooning egotist, the humbling of a myopic brainiac. Some New York critics complained in their reviews of the recent New York production that the evening was more of an essay than a play, and it is easy to see what they mean. Still, even lesser Barker stands well above most of what Boston theater companies serve up (and our critics lap up), while guest director Richard Romagnoli garners lively, if sometimes overanxious, performances from the cast.
No doubt the play’s corrosive vision of war as a cancer eating away at a country’s soul resonates with America’s Iraq debacle, but I can think of a number of Barker plays that are more theatrical and relevant to the current nightmare, such as the gloriously surreal “The Bite of the Night.” The overextended mastermind in “A Hard Heart” is named Riddler, a woman of icy intelligence asked by a panicked Queen Praxis to use all of her formidable IQ — Riddler is referred to as a god and appears at times to believe it herself — to ward off invaders who are approaching the capital city. Riddler takes on the task once she is assured that her son, the ironically named Attila, will be spared serving in the military.
The rest of the play amounts to an existential game of Battleship. The Riddler dreams up elaborate defenses, often involving building fantastical walls, which the enemy figures out and quickly breaches. (Barker may have in mind Edward Bond’s “Lear,” an epic rewrite of Shakespeare in which Lear’s attempt to build a protective wall destroys him.) Eventually, Riddler’s schemes call for sacrificing all that the city holds dear, including its temple and palace. She trusts her divine intellect, brooks no questioning of her skill at perfecting stratagems – the Queen questions Riddler’s humanity while suspecting that survival means doing away with benevolence and respect for the past.
Praxis and her military commander, Plevna, dislike Riddler, but Barker does not give the duo the rhetorical power to oppose the city’s lethal savior; they simply complain, snarl or whine before accepting the Riddler’s latest brilliant scheme. The opposition to Riddler is so transparently anemic that the “disintegration” of the city almost appears to be desirable in Barker’s eyes – the old must be cleared for the sake of the new. This works as an abstract concept, the celebration of demolition for the sake of rebirth, but the approach flattens the play emotionally, despite the inclusion of some of the city’s small fry – a soldier, a widow – who are led haplessly to the slaughter by the powers-that-be.
James Wallert and Kathleen Chalfant in the New York production of Howard Barker’s A Hard Heart.
Barker suggests that as the city’s walls are breached so are Riddler’s psychological defenses against the call of the wild. A character named Seemore (!) literally howls out his obsessive love for Riddler; he’s an obvious symbol of repressed eros. But a cheap contrivance that many will guess early on trips up the storyline as well as the Riddler’s hubris. And the play’s final image, which presents Riddler with the primal choice of embracing love or death, comes off as a tidy representation, a sort of Freudian blueprint, of Barker’s powerful vision of the dark vitality at the rock-bottom-of-all-things.
Director Romagnoli keeps the bare-bone proceedings engaging while Barker’s language, cryptic and muscular, compels your attention. The performers resort to melodramatic posturing, swashbuckling and contorting, but the energy mitigates the script’s cut-and-dry patterns. Meg Taintor, as Riddler, conveys an effective mask of confidence but suggests little of the turmoil underneath. Ben Fainstein provides welcome comic panache as the Riddler’s son while Eliza Lay, as Praxis, supplies the requisite amount of stately consternation.
So there’s plenty of skill here to suggest that a trip to New York for the Potomac Theatre Project’s production (directed by Romagnoli) of a superior Barker play, “Scenes from an Execution,” may be in order during July. And let’s hope Whistler in the Dark makes another go at Barker – nobody else in the area has the courage — though next time let it be one of his better and wilder scripts.
(Note of interest: The plot of Barker’s latest play “I Saw Myself,” which just closed in London, sounds as downright Oedipal as “A Hard Heart.” The plot revolves around the aristocratic Sleev, whose husband has been killed in a war that is still waging. As the enemy draws closer, Sleev works on an ornate tapestry that will serve as a homage to her marriage. But Sleev is determined to make everything, including her sins, public: this confrontation with the truth makes her go blind. )