REVIEW: The Castle (Oracle Theatre)

Oracle bites off more than it can chew

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The Oracle Theatre presents:

The Castle

 

by Howard Barker
co-directed by Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen
through March 6th (more info)

review by Aggie Hewitt

The Oracle Theatre did something really hard when they decided to take on Howard Barker‘s 1985 play, "The Castle." Barker, who calls his work "Theatre of Catastrophe," writes plays that are intentionally convoluted, morally ambiguous and linguistically challenging. This is the type of play that needs to be tamed by it’s cast and crew, because of the unruly chaos on the pages of the script. 

the-castle3 Entering the theater, the audience is greeted by an attractive young cast masquerading as a flock of crazy townspeople, meandering through the space, improvising conversations with one another about things like "braiding their lovely hair" in creepy voices. When the lights go down, Howard Barker’s dark story begins. In a nutshell, it’s about a solider returning home from the Crusades, to find that the women have taken over the village and turned it into a Sapphic baby-farm with no government. 

Barker writes in poetry, and over-saturates his work with images so that not everyone catches everything. That way, he creates a show that everyone has a personal relationship with, and no one can quite agree on. Everyone understands things a little differently in life, why try to deny that in art? He also believes that art should be "an irritant in consciousness, a grain of sand in the oyster’s gut." That is, something unsettling that gnaws at your thinking. He also claims to write without any moral absolutes, leaving the audience swimming in a sea of grey at the plays end, not knowing what to think.

It’s a little bit intellectually overwhelming to think about all of the elements that you are supposed to keep track of when watching this play. Unfortunately, it may have been a little overwhelming for the earnest and likable cast as well. Huge portions of the play are lost to garbled speech and the occasional slip into the dreaded faux Brit accent. Co-directors Justin Warren and Ben Fuchesen have missed the mark here, instead of presenting a play without a moral compass, they’ve presented a play with no focus. The lack of an absolute morality; the absurd, complex violence and language call for excessive attention to detail, which is lacking in this production. The set is lazy, with a back wall that is a vehicle for shadow puppets, an awesome concept that falls flat half the time, and unforgivable fake ivy. Sean Campbell‘s expressive lighting is a winning element of the play, especially when it brings the shadow puppets home.

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The production comes so close to hitting a home run but gets lost at third base. The inherent anger in the text is clearly communicated, and the actors come across as being infatuated with their words. It’s the kind of production with a lot of yelling, and a lot of passion but not a lot of depth. One standout performance comes from Victoria C. Gilbert, who manages to find some truth in Skinner the Witch. Although a lot of the show does not work, she’s got a powerful presence, especially in the killer second act. Although a lot of choices are bland, these are actors who all really get it. Watching them work together, it’s clear that they are coming from the same place, and fundamentally understand the work of Barker. Often, when a work is too heady, the performances suffer under the weight of the theory. Baker is the masochistic type of playwright who needs to be tamed; not worshiped. His ideology is too rigid too see actors worrying about it on stage. It’s the type of thing that needs to be infused into the performances, by the directors, not explained away by the actors sly knowingness. From the audience on Sunday night, this seemed like a young theater company biting off more than they could chew up and spit out.

Rating: ★★

 

 

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