review: Barker’s “The Castle”

Manhattan in summertime is humid, sweaty and gross. Did I mention smelly? It’s that, too. To make yourself feel better, and smarter, you could take in one of the annual summer theater festivals: The NYC International Fringe, Under the Radar at The Public, or, you could avail yourself to the 27th season of PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) at The Atlantic 2 in Chelsea, where Caryl Churchill’s “Serious Money” and Howard Barker’s “The Castle” are playing in rep.

Barker’s “The Castle” is set in 12th century England: soldiers have returned from the Crusades after many years to find their patriarchal society obliterated, the women in charge, and in no hurry to have them back. At the forefront are Ann (Jennifer Van Dyck), who is now a changed woman, and Skinner (Jan Maxwell) her confidant, lover and also, a witch. Ann’s husband, Stucley (David Barlow), a knight, is not pleased by that which he cannot control, and in his impotence, decides to have a castle built with the help of an Arab engineer, Krak (Thom Christopher). That decision sets events in motion, with disastrous consequences.

If you don’t know the work of British playwright Howard Barker, “The Castle” is a good place to start. The words “set in 12th century England” can terrify the average theatergoer, but Barker dispenses with the period language and adds humor, violence, liberal usage of the words “cunts,” and “cocks” plus swearing as well as descriptions of copulating. There are no barriers to understanding, and it is clear how Barker feels about war (hell), sex (necessary) and relations between men and women (it’s complicated).

This production of “The Castle” is first-rate, with a top-notch cast and electrifying central performances by Van Dyck, Maxwell, Barlow and Christopher. The supporting cast is also terrific. Richard Romagnoli’s superb direction concentrates on a cohesive ensemble, on the relationships between the characters and less on special effects and set pieces.

It was a pleasure to be sitting in that theater on a hot, summer, city night. If you find yourself in need of sweet relief, watching PTP/NYC’s production of “The Castle” at The Atlantic 2 is where you want to be.