Poetry of Violence

PTP, previously known as the Potomac Theatre Project, is presenting what is labeled a world première of two plays by noted British playwright Howard Barker. They are, in fact, two poems by Barker, who has been a leading playwright since the 1970s but whose work is seldom staged here; they have become “plays” because they are delivered as monologues by two accomplished actors. The first is called Gary the Thief and involves an Irish brute. The second is narrated by a voluble and charming fellow and concerns violence in the Balkans. The adaptation of the poems to the stage isn’t altogether successful. Though the intention is ambitious, the result is something that’s neither fish nor fowl, as if one were hearing a Robert Browning poem—“My Last Duchess” or “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church”—spoken as a dramatic entity. Those, in fact, might be more effective, because they are self-contained speeches, while parts of Gary the Thief swivel between the third person and the first, with both segments spoken by the actor, Robert Emmet Lunney: “My defence lies in your opulence/Says Gary the Thief/Your greed dwarfs my offence/Your violence staggers the ropes of the glove/The very sandwich which the warder bites/Was yanked from in between the jaws of children thin as kites.”

If at times the estimable Lunney cannot make the spill of words intelligible to a listener, it’s because they need to be savored and pored over at leisure, not heard swiftly. Despite a narrative line to the poem (Gary goes to jail, where he eventually rises to a supervisor of other inmates), they feel as if they are meant to be read on a page. That they are lyrical and vivid is not in question, and Lunney, stern and forbidding in a shiny gray suit and tie, makes plenty of other moments—the ones that a reader must puzzle through in print—come alive with quasi-sneering aplomb.

Thematically the two pieces are joined by the theme of violence. But, as the quotation above indicates, Gary the Thief also trades in the British and Irish obsession of class inequity and the trappings of socialist rhetoric that don’t carry as much weight over here. “Let us recognize in Gary/The party theorist says/An ally of the revolution/Whose misplaced zeal/Demonstrates the squandered/Initiative of the oppressed/Reclaim him/How preferable he is to/Intellectuals or priests.”

The second piece, Plevna: Meditations on Hatred, works somewhat better, perhaps because the Balkan conflict touched Americans more closely and for an extended period. The marvelous Alex Draper benefits from a jauntier, more casual approach to the frequently horrific material, infusing it with irony and nonchalance, and designer Christina Galvez has provided some chairs of chrome tubing and black vinyl, and a couple tables.

His shirt open at the throat, with a black bow tie hanging loosely, Draper’s character sips on a scotch and talks about the savagery of Balkan warfare: “All these were killed/Not by the army/But by neighbours/Who in later years/To satisfy the curiosity of children/Talked of the peculiar speed/At which relations deteriorated.” The piece evokes the barbarism that engulfed the Balkans vividly and poetically, although Barker in this case was prescient. Plevna was written in 1988, before the genocidal upheavals of the early 1990s. Clearer and more effective than in Gary the Thief, Barker’s words describe horrors in the manner of a litany at times: “Troy’s bleeding monuments/Massada’s intoxicating leaps/Syracuse’s innovative deaths, Acre’s carpet of disfigured women/Wexford’s mounds of the unchosen/Vienna’s woods of castration…”

Director Richard Romagnoli does a nice job of investing the poem/plays with movements, many of them small gestures. But each is so telling that, for instance, when Lunney cringes on the floor or steps off the front of the stage at one point, the effect of those larger moments is intensified. Together the plays add up to 45 minutes: For all the lushness of the words and imagery, the monologues serve as mere settings to show off superbly talented actors.

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