The fierce political agitprop of Howard Barker and the theatrical form known as absurdism aren’t a natural fit, but you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a more delectably absurdist sequence than the one Barker uses to open The Power of the Dog. Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, and their many imitators have come up with fictional situations aplenty to illustrate the notion that language is the enemy of communication, but seldom has this central absurdist tenet been communicated as succinctly as in the opening scene Barker playfully lifts from history.
He takes us to the Kremlin in 1944, where Churchill and Stalin are meeting to determine the composition of postwar Europe. Molotov is serving cocktails (what else?), and an oddly angry Scottish comedian (the only Scottish comedian in Moscow, apparently) has been brought in to tickle Churchill’s funny bone. Also on hand are a pair of translatorsone Russian, the other Englishneither of whom can quite keep up with the erudite leaders they’re trying to assist.
The erudition is what does them in. Churchill asks ornately whether Stalin would care to propose a definition of history, and after drinking to collective farms, Stalin offers, “The incredulous overwhelmed by the incredible,” an answer the doggedly witty Churchill would likely like if only he could hear it. Unfortunately, his own translator renders the reply as “The unlikely triumphing over the, er…” and trails off, while the Soviet interpreter struggles with “The unbelievable…er, the unbelieving…” At which point the comedian blurts out, “History! Ah will tell ye wha’ history is, it’s a woman bein’ raped by 10 soldiers in a village in Manchuria.” Churchill looks blankly at him, and says, “My love of Scottish comedians has been noted, but alas not satisfied”and with some relief, everyone returns to toasting armies and dividing the spoils of war.
Soon, Stalin’s paranoia has him accusing a terrified waiter of trying to erase him from history, a line of reasoning strained enough that the English translator decides he’s misunderstanding, and that it must be dialectpossibly bawdy. This notion rather interests Churchill, and by scene’s end the two leaders are standing boozily atop a table talking about “stirring the entrails of the as yet unborn.” No one is translating anymore, and perfect incomprehension reigns. Beckett would no doubt be proud. Godot, too.
Though things proceed rather differently from that point than they would in most absurdist comedies, Barker keeps the irony level high as he deals with war and history in his customary (which is to say, alternately comic and poetic) fashion. What he’s chiefly exploring is the impact of an all-encompassing authority on three womenparty loyalist Tremblayev (K. Clare Johnson), who’s in love with the subject of one of her investigations; filmmaker Matrimova (Jeanne Dillon), who’s intent on depicting a distinctively Soviet courage that is not individual but collective; and “atrocity addict” Ilona (Erika Sheffer), who’s assisting a photographer in documenting the war’s carnage. As each of these women interacts with secret-police lieutenant Sorge (Michael John Casey), who seems determined to erase individuality altogether (though he himself is one hell of an intriguing individual), the author lays out the pieces of a compelling puzzle, inviting the audience to put the damn thing together. In her program notes, director Kathleen Akerley writes that Barker is on record as viewing “a coherent, comprehending group response from any audience to be a mark of failure,” which sounds a bit caveat emptor-ish, as if it were necessary to explain why the playwright’s work is so rarely produced in this country. She needn’t have worried. The smart visuals and thought-through provocations of her staging notwithstanding, a coherent, comprehending group response to Power of the Dog would be entirely counterproductivenot to mention unlikely. And I say that with deep admiration.
Barker is probably the most poetic of the angry young Brit playwrights who took their social cues from John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger but chose to paint on a broader political canvas. D.C. audiences are mostly familiar with this fascinating leftist polemicist courtesy of the Potomac Theatre Project productions staged by Richard Romagnoli, who brought an intense visual poetry to such works as No End of Blame (which compares Soviet political censorship with U.S. economic censorship), The Castle (which chronicles an Arab architect’s attempts to build a defensive fortress so perfect it makes attack necessary), and Scenes From an Execution (which explores contemporary tensions among art, politics, and religion through the prism of Renaissance Venice). Barker wrote all those works, as well as Power of the Dog, between 1982 and 1985, earning himself an enfant-terrible rep and enormous acclaim everywhere in Europeexcept, curiously, in his native Britain.
PTP’s mountings have earned him a decently loyal D.C. following, and his fans will no doubt be delighted to have the absurdism-obsessed Longacre Lea Theater Company taking up his cause, as well. The troupe has developed a distinctively spare visual stylein this case designer Joseph B. Musumeci has hemmed in the central playing space with two huge Stalinist posters and an angled mirror, lit moodily and with a few expressionist touches by Adam Magazineas well as an enviable acting ensemble. Michael Glenn creates a Churchill who’s all gait and gruffness; Jason Stiles is a personable, cultured Stalin given to alarmingly unpredictable outbursts. John Tweel’s differently panicked photographer and waiter and Jonathan Church’s variously frustrated interpreter, music lover, and peasant-party leader are strong assets. Fiona Blackshaw manages to embody a bemused communist intellectual, a furious Nazi killer, and a twisting, strung-up corpse for whom the term “lifelike” is clearly wrong, but somehow apt. Dan Via’s Scottish comic is blisteringly funny in a way that virtually prohibits laughter, while Dan Brick’s frenzied toadying as an aide is pathetic in a way that all but demands it.
Strongest of all are Casey and Sheffervulnerable authority and self-confident individualityperforming the nightmarish ballet Barker has devised for all those who dance to evade the consequences of history. Akerley engages her cast in haunting vignettesa suspended dead body being stripped of stockings, an interrogator’s voice modulating from threat to seeming reasonableness, a battlefield rape accompanying a speech on chaos, a music aficionado veiling his annoyance at a dictator’s pontifications on composers, and of course, that mad Scotsman telling jokes with punch lines that sear.
It’s probably wise not to try too hard to connect the dots, or at least not to insist on linearity when you do. Barker works more elliptically than most playwrights, but by writing of politics as if it were a sex-charged dream”earrings, nail varnish, giving the eye in corridors, and rotting bras with desperate little sweats”he sure holds your attention through the curves. CP