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"Gary the Thief" and "Plevna: Meditations on Hatred" by Howard Barker – Off Broadway Theater Review

 

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picture - Poems by Howard Barker - PTP/NYC - photo by Stan Barouh

 

Theater Review

by Alexander Harrington 

published July 24, 2010 

 

Poems by Howard Barker: "Gary the Thief" and "Plevna: Meditations on Hatred"

now playing Off Broadway at Atlantic Stage Two  

through July 31 

 

As part of its fourth season since relocating to New York and changing its name from the Potomac Theatre Project, PTP/NYC is presenting “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred,” poems by playwright Howard Barker, directed by Richard Romagnoli, that do not work as staged monologues.

 

In these performances, Barker’s figurative language is ostentatious and his syntax self-consciously idiosyncratic.  The poems are so densely written as to be near-impossible to follow.  In “Gary the Thief,” actor Robert Emmett Lunney switches between the voices of the title character and a third-person narrator.  In the theatre, I was able to discern that Gary is arrested and tried for a crime that has outraged the public; in court, he denounces society’s hypocrisy; he goes to prison; he is adopted by a group of revolutionaries as an authentic proletarian; he keeps a brain in a jar and eventually buries it.  When I read the poem, I found it easier to follow and less linguistically flashy.  The poem implies that Gary’s heinous crime is infanticide.  It makes clear that he later becomes a prison farm overseer.  How this occurs is obscure, though I assume the revolutionaries who have taken Gary on have come to power.  This surmise is supported by the fact that among his charges are “intellectual criminals” – dissidents?  Unfortunately, most of this does not come across in performance.  What does come across are clichés.   Gary’s first lines are

 

            Oh, you monkeys

            I the thief

            Piss over you

 

            Oh, you cattle

            I suck your udders

            The weasel in the moonlight

            Rising on hind feet.

 

Sitting in the theatre, it seems that Gary, the brutally honest thief, is going to shock us out of our bourgeois complacency and shear us of our illusions.  When Gary stands in the dock, he proclaims,

 

            My defense lies in your opulence

           

            Your greed dwarfs my offense

            The very sandwich which the warder bites

            Was yanked between the jaws

            Of children thin as kites.

 

Hardly an original idea.  In his 1728 The Beggars Opera, John Gay writes

 

You may observe such a similitude of manners in high and low life, that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road [highway robbers], or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen.

           

And in Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1879 The Pirates of Penzance, the Pirate King sings

 

               But many a king on a first-class throne,

               If he wants to call his crown his own,

               Must manage somehow to get through

               More dirty work than e'er I do,

 

If one reads the poem, instead of struggling to listen to it, the fact that, under a revolutionary government (at least it seems so), Gary becomes a warder of political prisoners and calls into question his earlier attacks on bourgeois society.  Then again, the equation of totalitarianism with thugs is as old as Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (though Stalinist apologist that he was, I doubt Brecht would have conceded the existence of leftist totalitarianism).

 

Lunney is easier to follow as the narrator than he is as Gary.  This is, in part, because, as the former, his voice is resonant and a pleasure to listen to; as the latter, it is flat and his words hard to discern.  However, Lunney’s physicality as Gary makes for some memorable images, such as when he slyly smiles as he sniffs his fingers after having inserted them into his revolutionary mentor’s genitals.

 

“Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” takes its name from the site of a battle of the Russo-Turkish War in which the Russians and their Slavic allies defeated the Ottomans (for the Slavs, this was a war of liberation).  It is performed by Alex Draper, who is outstanding in The Lovesong of the Electric Bear, which is playing repertory with these poems and with David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy.  The setting and costumes for the staging of “Plevna” compound the difficulties of following a performance of this dense poem.  The furniture and an imprecise approximation of a tuxedo (more on this costume below) suggest that the speaker is at a cocktail party.  On the page, the reader is immediately aware that the aftermath of a battle is being described from the perspective of people on the battlefield, though it takes a while to discover exactly who the combatants (and non-combatants) are.  That Draper is clearly not on a battlefield obscures this.

 

The poem is not a predictable attack on governments and armies that brutalize innocent civilians: Barker stresses that “All these were killed/ Not by the army/ But by neighbors.”  In his program notes, Romagnoli points out that Barker was prescient in that he wrote this play in 1988, before the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, which were a direct result of the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, and in which people turned on neighbors with whom they’d lived side-by-side for decades.

 

An interesting aspect of the poem is the depiction of Tsar Alexander II:

              

               Alexander the emancipator of the serfs

               Whose stooping shoulders are clay

               In the moulding palms of grief

               Refuses not to watch children die.

 

In the midst of the poem, Barker leaves 1877 for the present

 

               So all the makers of films who pan the harvest

               All the poets who harp on pity

               The photographers of cemeteries which have no edge

 

               Collude in the mystery of death

 

               Its arbitrary selections

               Its magnificent oversights

               Its showing itself like the

               Flagrant exposer of his parts

 

It is probably this critique of modern-day aestheticizers of war that inspired the cocktail party setting.  But, after this apostrophe, the poem returns to Plevna, 1877, and again, the focus of the poem is obscured by the staging.

 

A brief word about Draper’s costume, for which no designer is credited.  Draper wears a white shirt, a black satin bowtie, and a black pants and jacket, which are not a tuxedo and tuxedo pants.  The whole look is meant to suggest a tuxedo, and the tie goes with a tuxedo.  (This may seem like petty nit-picking, but it is the job of directors and designers to see to such details.)

 

Both “Gary the Thief” and “Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” work better on the page than they do on stage – or, at least, better than they work in this production.

 

alexanderharrington @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Stan Barouh

 

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read the other reviews of PTP/NYC's summer repertory

A Question of Mercy

Lovesong of the Electric Bear

 

 

 
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