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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REVIEW: Minna (Trap Door Theatre)

American Premier Is Absurd Entertainment

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Trap Door Theatre presents:

Minna

by Howard Barker
directed by Nicole Wiesner
thru February 13th (ticket info)

review by Keith Ecker

minna_high_res2 It’s a pompous thing to create and name your own style of theatre. Some might say to do so takes a lunatic. Enter Howard Barker.

Barker is a British playwright who currently heads up his own company, The Wrestling School. The Wrestling School serves as a testing ground for his homemade, self-named theatrical genre, “Theatre of Catastrophe.” This style, according to Barker, “takes as its first principle the idea that art is not digestible. Rather, it is an irritant in consciousness, like the grain of sand in the oyster’s gut.” Furthermore, Barker does not anchor his work in realism or any sort of ideology. He is of the idea that art should be bold and challenging. And boy is his work challenging…and, surprisingly, rewarding.

Minna is a jaw-droppingly complex piece of theater. It bewilders and amazes on so many levels, like viewing a three-ring circus under the influence of some potent hallucinogen. Even as I write this, I find it difficult to describe the small semblance of a plot, yet the emotion the play draws out flows as if I’m currently watching the production. Really, it’s like a nightmare that just lingers with you for days.

To the best of my understanding, the play is about a young woman named Minna (Geraldine Dulex). She and the rest of the characters span two time periods, switching back and forth rather seamlessly and without warning. The first time period appears to be the 18th century. Men wear boots and frilly shirts while women don dresses that accentuate their bottom halves. Two corpses hang in the background—in fact they hang for the entire play, occasionally pleading to Minna, warning her of some fate they wish her not to befall. There is a military man named Tellheim (Kevin Cox) who evokes fear, anger and lust from Minna. A landlord (Derek Ryan) with a case of split personality presides over Minna’s quarters while three women, all named Fransisca (Sadie Rogers, Pamela Maurer and Kinga Modjeska), follow Minna dotingly like shadows.

Meanwhile, the fourth wall is all but obliterated as the Count (John Gray), a stereotypical British fop, takes a seat in the middle of the audience at the start of the show. He hems and haws throughout, making lewd comments in between stuffing his face with fruit and gazing through his opera glasses.

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The other time period is more contemporary, whisking the characters away to the mid-20th century. In this world, Minna is a powerful attorney and her antagonist, Tellheim, is on trial. Other characters appear as their parallel selves.

If Barker’s mission was to dash, subvert and corrupt any expectations the audience has of what might happen at any moment within the play, then he is absolutely successful. Randomness abounds as characters act out forced sexual acts, cross dress and occasionally call each other by the actors’ names. It’s a play that doesn’t want to be a play. It wants to be performance art. Yet it is a play, and a damn good one.

All the actors in the production must be commended. The dialogue is some of the most difficult I’ve ever witnessed. Often it has no semblance of reason. It’s seemingly random at parts, yet poignant at others. Often it’s delivered with the mania of a mad man. Yet all actors manage to channel this insanity into something real, something worth watching. No. More than worth watching—something great. This was art.

Minna is the directorial debut for Trap Door ensemble member Nicole Wiesner. Like the actors, she manages to construe something completely insane into a complex, yet digestible, production. Oftentimes every character on stage is doing something, making some face or emoting some feeling. Wiesner consistently manages to convey this without drowning out the point of focus.

Minna is definitely not for all. It’s a bucking bronco of a play that tries hard to shake the audience. But come prepared for the absurd, and hold on tight. It’s well worth it.

Rating: ★★★★

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