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The Possibilities / The After-Dinner Joke – Atlantic Stage 2, New York

Writer: Howard Barker / Caryl Churchill

Director: Richard Romagnoli / Cheryl Faraone

Reviewer: Jamie Rosler

Potomac Theatre Project is back for another summer season of PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2. Bringing together the work of Howard Barker and Caryl Churchill (playwrights this company has grouped together in the past) for a double bill as one half of their repertory season, they explore powerful themes with varying degrees of depth and scrutiny.

Opening with The Possibilities by Barker, as excerpted and adapted by director Richard Romagnoli, the audience is presented with four seemingly unrelated human encounters that raise questions around power, sexuality, violence, and control. As far as art being a vehicle toward discussion of grand ideas, this production of The Possibilities certainly raises possibilities for people to mull over, but unfortunately that mulling might stall while trying to ascertain what the four vignettes are doing produced together. According to the program notes, these four shorts (The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act, Reasons for the Fall of Emperors, Only Some Can Take the Strain, She Sees the Argument But) are excerpted from a set of ten short plays intended to be performed together, and Romagnoli has sewn them together by further using excerpts from three of Barker’s poems (Don’t Exaggerate, Plevna, Refuse to Dance) to serve as prologue, entr’acte, and epilogue. This may well take Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe a step too far, as his work is already built to be somewhat inscrutable upon first or superficial viewings.

Other questionable directing choices present additional hurdles in allowing the work to subsume the audience. Why engage actors in accent and dialect work that simply add distraction to both the viewer and the performer? What should otherwise be an examination of universal human themes becomes so narrowly focused into a time and place that it fights against its own potential. An ostensible bookseller who is also some unnamed enemy of the state loses all her power of allegory when she speaks with a third-rate Cockney accent about having lost a friend in the fall of the Bastille. Drop the accents and let the actors get to the heart of the matter with more speed and clarity.

Several moments throughout the first act are lacking in emotional intensity. Perhaps a fear of being melodramatic holds productions back from committing to the fullness dictated by their scripts, but it’s especially notable at least once in each vignette, as well as in the quality of reading the poetic voiceovers between scenes. When external representations onstage don’t match the words spoken or the action that inspires the response, it stands out as flat and false. When a director makes a purposeful choice to adjust or adapt the text of a production, they should be that much more purposeful in directing its performance. 

Act II presents The After-Dinner Joke by Caryl Churchill, and it is the stronger choice with which to close the night. A whirlwind of time and location jumps are handled rather cleanly by director Cheryl Faraone and her cast. Churchill does not write scene changes with ease of production in mind, and this play has several and includes the use of overhead projections. This team rises to face the challenge with creative ingenuity (though not without some clunky moments).

Churchill’s script is more laser-focused on a theme than its act one predecessor. For all its outwardly scattered appearance, it is constantly pulling apart the generally accepted ideas behind charitable giving and personal politics. As we watch the slow demise of a natural do-gooder going from pure optimism to selfish cynicism, the lack of struggle is enlightening if depressing. The cast (with many of the same actors from act one) is more connected to the roles they represent. It is difficult to say whether this is a product of the scripts or their direction, but it is a perceptible difference nonetheless. Even the accents are less problematic!

This year’s PTP/NYC, while rife with imperfections and an occasionally lagging pace, is still a valuable work of theatre that raises or triggers worthwhile questions about humanity’s political struggles. These plays, written in the late 1970s and mid-1980s, are no less relevant than when written (and it isn’t too hard to find parallels that are more current today than they would have been when published). The production’s technical aspects (scenic design by Hallie Zieselman, costume design by Annie Ulrich, sound design by Cormac Bluestone, and lighting design by Joe Cabrera) are well managed and help incorporate necessary layers of expression to both halves of the show.

This production won’t upend your world, but it might just inspire you to upend it yourself.

Runs until 5 August 2018 | Image: Stan Barouh

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Pertly Political

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The American team is under the editorship of Adrienne Sowers. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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