del Rosso Review: PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) 32nd Season – Howard Barker +Bertolt Brecht + Caryl Churchill

I can find no better way to illustrate the significance of the PTP/NYC’s 32nd Season than to offer this excerpt from Brecht’s poem “Again and Again”: 

The rain

Can’t go back up

When the wound 

No longer hurts

The scar does. 

Indeed, again and again, history repeats itself because those in power learn nothing from history except, inadvertently, that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The time periods shift but little has changed, whether it is the early 20th century charting Brecht’s life, work and music in “Brecht on Brecht,” Barker’s “The Possibilities,” written in 1989, and Churchill’s “The After-Dinner Joke,” written a decade earlier. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Brilliantly directed by Jim Petosa, “Brecht on Brecht” which, to our happy surprise, turned out to be a musical, with dynamic musical direction by Ronnie Romano, opens on Scenic Designer Hallie Zieselman’s well-appointed, almost stately room: a black grand piano, expensive-looking Persian carpets, and four music stands facing the audience. Four corresponding company members come out: Harrison Bryan, Christine Hamel, Carla Martinez, Jake Murphy. They look at the sheet music, groan, toss it into the air, knock over the stands, create chaos, upending convention and stolidity and social order. 

What follows is a carefully curated collage of Brecht’s words, politics, music and how he took all of these elements and made them into theatre, into poetry, into singing, into art.   The company, including Miguel Castillo, Olivia Christie, Sebastian LaPointe, and Ashley Michelle, many of whom are new PTP faces, is uniformly excellent. 

“Brecht on Brecht” is both intermission-less and seamless. I mention the latter because there were highlights when the impulse was to burst into applause and jump out of one’s seat, but pauses were not encouraged.  

I am sure most people are familiar with the swing version of Bobby Darin’s “Mack the Knife,” from Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” or Ella Fitzgerald’s version on the1960 live Berlin album (when she improvised the lyrics she had forgotten). Then comes the incomparable Harrison Bryan, and what he has done with “Mack the Knife” is a staggering work of genius that rattles the bones. Seated on top of the piano, with no props, nothing fancy, just that voice and a few simple hand gestures, the man Bryan is singing about is by turns charming and absolutely terrifying. He is not a man you would want to have a beer with. He is a man you avoid at all costs. Bryan withholds, lets loose and then reels all that emotion back in. He made Mack the Knife a cutthroat murderer’s torch song. Unforgettable.

One scene, featuring Christine Hamel, consists of four phone calls followed by a monologue. She is in the process of saying goodbye to family and friends because she is leaving. We learn it is 1935. She is a Jew in Germany and has suffered betrayal on all fronts: by her spineless husband whom she still loves and by her country. If she does not leave now, if she waits, she risks being sent away. Hamel’s face conveys all of this. The conversation with her husband that she rehearses alone and then what she actually says to him when confronted is a heartbreak. The parallels to today are… Brechtian.  

“The Tango Ballad,” a vicious, co-dependent relationship song, performed by Carla Martinez and Jake Murphy, walked a tightrope between farce and violence. Neither one of them will be leaving the other anytime soon. 

So at the end of this spectacular evening of Brecht, what has been learned?

Another illustration: after the deserved, protracted applause and the lights came up in the theatre, the gentleman sitting next to us asked, “What was that line? I missed the end of that line. ‘The bitch that…’?”

  Reading from my notes, I said, “The bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

He said, “Oh. Right. How did you happen to write that specific line down?”

Think about it. I mean, really. 

Think about it. 

“The Possibilities” by Howard Barker and “The After-Dinner Joke” by Caryl Churchill are running as a double-bill. It’s not hard to understand why. Both are British, formidable, political, glittering with brilliance. Barker, at 72, and Churchill, at 80, are also thankfully,  both still writing. My editor and I were discussing this before the performance. Righteous anger is a great motivator.

For this presentation, “The Possibilities,” superbly directed by Richard Romagnoli, PTP has selected four from the decalogue of short plays, in four different time periods. In “The Unforeseen Consequences of a Patriotic Act,” extending an Old Testament parable, Judith (Kathleen Wise, in a provocative, controlled performance) coiled, serpentine, has repaired to the country with her Servant (Marianne Tatum, a powerful presence, protective, motherly), recovering from lopping off the head of Holofernes, losing her voice and giving birth to a child. Having done more than her fair share of patriotic duty, she is content with solitude and silence. But a Woman (Eliza Renner, appropriately officious and class-conscious) sent from the government of Bethulia to convince Judith otherwise has a surprise in store for her. For Judith is a true warrior. And Judith has no shame or regret; rather, she knows the beheading was “a crime” and she will not repeat that crime or have anything more to do with the deed. The Woman in question gets nowhere tempting Judith with flattery or power or fame. So she extends her hand. But the Woman clearly did not realize the depth of Judith’s rage, and a loving gesture is exactly what she mistrusts the most. 

In the powerful “Reasons for the Fall of Emperors,” Jonathan Tindle plays an increasingly terrified Alexander of Russia during early 19th century wartime. Unable to bear the sound of his men’s screams in battle as their throats are slit, Tindle, terrific in his apparent vulnerability, is offered wax to stopper his ears by an Officer (Adam Milano) but declines. He gets no relief until a Peasant boot-shiner (played with grace, wit and humility by Christopher Marshall) pokes his head into the tent. The Peasant provides a sort of philosophical counsel and a tender display of humanity to the emperor which clearly he is not accustomed to. The scene climaxes in what can only be described as Alexander the Emperor standing in clothes he has never donned before. When Alexander offers himself up for assassination, the Peasant, affronted, declines. And because the peasant is the greater man, Alexander punishes him. 

“Only Some Can Take the Strain” is an Orwellian tale wrapped in a cockney accent. Set in the modern era – traffic, sirens, shopping carts – the Bookseller (Marianne Tatum, in a wonderful, canny performance ) initially comes off as eccentric, slightly daft, paranoid – a bag lady. But after an encounter with a Man (Adam Milano, thuggishly good) and a Woman (Eliza Renner) in a severe, black skirt suit, it is clear this “act” she puts on is with good reason. In her near-defeat, I was reminded of Lucky in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” chain around his neck, holding the luggage, can’t go on but will go on until the bitter end.

In my head, I dubbed “ She Sees the Argument But” the “ankle play.” I had to check when this was written, because this cautionary tale could be TODAY, though it is set in a futuristic society, where everything to do with women- clothing, makeup, hemlines – is controlled, policed to the nth degree. This is the ultimate blame-the-woman-before-it-happens universe. The Official (Kathleen Wise, in frightening, buttoned-up mode), interviews a Woman (Madeleine Russell, spirited, defiant), ostensibly about her sexually-provocative, above the ankle skirt. “We’re so glad you came,” the Official says repeatedly, and “We just want to understand.” The Woman is smart enough not believe this, but she is trapped. You should not believe this because you are in the real world, and you still have choices.  

In Caryl Churchill’s farcical “The After Dinner Joke” directed at a clip by Cheryl Faraone,  Selby (Tara Giordano, with an open-faced candor), is a bright, young do-gooder who hands in her resignation because she wants to save the world. Her boss, the aptly named Price (Jonathan Tindle), is the president of a multi-billion dollar corporation. Instead of letting her go, he puts her in charge of fundraising for his charity (the organization is loosely based on Oxfam). From there, with the best of intentions, Selby skips down the paved road to hell. Naively, she debates with the Labor-leaning Mayor (Christopher Marshall, in another stellar turn, nearly upstaged by his two-tone shoes and natty green socks) that not all things are political. He suggests his pet snakes. But there are snakes in the grass everywhere she turns: a businessman who runs banana farms bemoaning costs due to a devastating hurricane, never mind that it has killed thousands; a golfer who would rather give to “known causes,” meaning ones that benefit himself; Dent, the charity campaign manager (Kathleen Wise, all business here) who does not want slogans to remind people of their wealth or their complicity and undercuts Selby at every turn. 

  The thing is, poverty isn’t sexy. A hurricane that devastated an island, left it with no power and killed thousands isn’t sexy. And guilt certainly isn’t sexy. Better to devise a light-hearted, after-dinner joke to make giving to the charity more palatable, so everyone can believe they have a clean conscience and become a do-gooder just like Selby. Just don’t look at that python handbag too closely. 

I cannot recommend PTP/NYC highly enough.

Company, Brecht on Brecht, Photo by Stan Barouh
Christopher Marshall (Peasant) and Jonathan Tindle (Alexander of Russia) in Howard Barker’s Reasons For the Fall of Emperors – Photo by Stan Barouh
Tara Giordano (Selby) in Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke – Photo by Stan Barouh

They are an extraordinary company.  They choose powerful, thought-provoking work, and the Potomac Theatre Project – actors, directors, technicians – work together in such a seamless way, there are no chinks in this armor. PTP/NYC is necessary theatre, right here, right now.