Maybe it ought to go without saying that one should go to the theater prepared to pay attention. But it doesn’t anymore, not when screen-conditioned young people no longer have the attention span to serve on a jury. So, fair warning: Potomac Theatre Project’s current production of The Barker Poems—two long poems by Howard Barker read as dramatic monologues—requires sustained attention. It’s shy of an hour long, but that’s a fair stretch when close listening is mandatory. This isn’t a production that will hit you over the head and drag you along with it. Don’t go sleepy; you’ll need your serious brain to meet Barker’s serious language.
Primarily a playwright, Barker proves a really fine dramatic poet as well. To start, the wondrous Robert Emmet Lunney performs “Gary the Thief,” which follows said thief through an epic series of existential adventures as he’s arrested and imprisoned. “I live among you/Hating you,” he addresses us; “I charm you/With the ease of one who holds/All effort in contempt.” Mr. Lunney’s performance does indeed seem effortless. Breezed from mood to mood by subtle, perfect lighting (Hallie Zieselman) and directed deftly by Richard Romagnoli, Lunney makes Gary a delightful, philosophical, and slightly dangerous rascal. A bit of a low-class Ulysses, he rises above and burrows below what regular folks seem to expect of him: “I ride History lightly as a leaf/On torrents which wash away the/Gates of prisons and of parks.”
Ultimately he seems to experience a kind of revelation, or passion, but his consistent sureness of himself keeps the ending ambiguous: if Gary can’t learn (“I did this for knowledge/But nothing came of it”), can he overcome? Is there anything to overcome? Perhaps only our skepticism about him. About whether by himself he can sustain our rapt interest for half an hour and take us somewhere we’ve not been before. Mission accomplished.
The second poem, “Plevna,” comes to us through the rapid-fire delivery of Alex Draper, who was so fine as Alan Turing in Lovesong of the Electric Bear. Subtitled “Meditations on Hatred,” the work is named for a Bulgarian city that was the site of a long siege in the Russo-Turkish War of the 1870s, but Plevna stands in for all sites where the horrors of war rear up. Jarringly, our narrator has just stepped away from a cocktail party. Still nursing his drink, he brings us various points of view: “The hem of his [the priest’s] cassock is stained/From the blood of horses…The emperor witnessed the decimation/From a platform made of planks…[Alexander] will not see death in such abundance/Or pain in such garlands again…” And the Sultan “is silent/Staring across the Straits/A cruiser made in South Shields unzips the placid pond.”
It’s a disturbing, at times bewildering ride, and in the end less successful as a piece of drama than “Gary.” It’s true that Mr. Draper, while bringing great liveliness to his performance, occasionally swallows a line. But in essence it’s not the fault of the performer or the crew. I think it’s simply that we read of war every day. We’re bombarded with new and old knowledge of atrocities here, there, and everywhere, world without end. We simply don’t need this, even from as great a writer as Barker, as much as we need the individual and irreproducible meta-yarns of Everyman-oddities like Gary the Thief, which can challenge our stodgy ways of looking at our violent and beautiful world.
What we do need, though, is more thought-provoking theater like this. As I said, don’t go sleepy. But go. The Barker Poems runs in repertory through August 1.
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