Potomac Theatre Project, a 27-year-old repertory theatre company with a seven-year-old residency in New York City, presents the New York premiere of Howard Barker’s The Castle at Atlantic Stage 2.
The play is set in 12th century England, as Stucley (David Barlow) returns home after leaving seven years ago for the Crusades. His wife Ann (Jennifer Van Dyck) made changes while Stucley has been away: leaving the church covered in animal excrement, birthing illegitimate children with different fathers, and having a relationship with Skinner, a witch (Jan Maxwell). Stucley, who has remained chaste the entire seven years, is none too pleased with the news. He dedicates his time to restoring his domain and enlisting the help of Krak (Quentin Maré) an engineer who designs a new castle for the estate. The set (designed by Jon Craine) at the top of the show is comprised of rectangular green stretches of fabric that are taken down piece by piece until the stage is bare. Actors portraying builders during intermission replace the fallen curtains with stretches of barbed wire that frame the stage for the second act. The dismantling of the feminine and fertile sheets of fabric to make for the cold, masculine metals of armament and war is a frightening transition. But gender isn’t the only issue at stake in The Castle. Conflicts of religion, race, and sex also build as the characters search for love and power during the castle’s tenuous construction.
The performances in The Castle are superb, and while five-time Tony Award nominee Jan Maxwell is the show’s star, she is not necessarily the star of the show. The cast equally supports each other, and they all have their own great moments of wit, longing, and despair. To be fair, the cast has help from Richard Romagnoli’s clean direction and Howard Barker’s well-written script. I am honestly surprised that The Castle premiered in 1985 and is having its New York premiere almost thirty years later. The play has material that I’ve never seen on stage. Stucley’s scene with the priest on creating a new church has both some of the funniest and most profane dialogue ever written for the stage. Likewise, Skinner, tied to the corpse of the castle builder she killed as punishment, evokes grim humor and disgust. The text, too, is fantastic. Barker’s dense language is a sublime meld of coarse obscenities and beautiful verse, all clearly enunciated by the actors with fully realized intentions. (I did find it interesting that Krak, a Middle Eastern character whose ethnicity is often referenced, is played by an ethnically ambiguous actor who resembles John Malkovich more than, say, Naveen Andrews.)
Quickly enough, though, PTP’s production makes clear that The Castle may not necessarily be taking place in 12th century England. The characters’ dialogue resembles a Jacobean black comedy in one beat, an expletive-ridden Mamet play in the next. Jule Emerson’s costume design is a historical shuffle of Middle Ages tunics, 20th century military berets, and contemporary construction-worker boots and helmets. At the end of the first act, Skinner is haunted by the shouting voices of men, personified by a group of actors wearing military uniforms in disparate historical periods—from the Napoleonic Wars to World War II. And the priest’s rant against the “wickedness to so wantonly cast off the gift of life” closely resembles the rhetoric used by today’s politicians concerning women’s reproductive rights. That is not to say The Castle has easy parallels to today’s issues. That would be a far too simplistic rendering of the play. But there is a complexity to the world of The Castle that transcends its setting, a complexity that makes us wonder what fate will befall men and women, Muslims and Christians, the powerful and the powerless. The director notes in the program that it is “best to leave audiences to wrestle with meaning, no easy task.” No easy task indeed.