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Any lobbyist worth his Guccis knows politics is really theater; success at the polls, that media consultant in the Donna Karan suit will tell you, is less about who you are than how you look to your television audience. Amid Washington’s endlessly unfolding (and infinitely cynical) daytime drama, though, there’s a group of hardcore idealists clinging passionately to the notion thatat least for several hours in the eveningit doesn’t have to be that way. Since 1987, when it staged its first performances at Hyattsville’s Castle Arts Center, Potomac Theater Project (PTP) has carved out a reputation as a fierce and uncompromising exponent of theater as politics, arguing the case for meaningful political dialogue with keenly intelligent productions of unapologetically polemical plays: Howard Barker’s heady, complex censorship fable, No End of Blame; Caryl Churchill’s The After-Dinner Joke, with its wry, slightly bitter take on the politics of charity; Harold Pinter’s outraged response to the Gulf War, The New World Order, and his Mountain Language, a tense exploration of totalitarianism. In 1990, the company tried something even more shocking: It stopped charging admission, reasoning that theater this political (or politics this theatrical) was challenging enough without the added barrier of the box office.
To inaugurate its 10th season, PTP looks back to the previous ones. Barker’s Scenes From an Execution, a triumph last year, is running again in the main performance space at Olney Theater Center (see Bob Mondello’s review); next door in the Olney Scene Shop, Robert Chesley’s The Dog Plays, a 1991 success, occupies a double bill with a “collage text” of scenes from 13 plays PTP has done since its inception.
This latter undertaking, titled 1996…we’re having fun NOW! (a similar project in 1992 was …are we having FUN yet?), is an invigorating showcase of everything that’s good about this company. The scene shop is one of those cavernous, warehouselike spaces that lend extra drama to whatever happens in them, and the works PTP’s directors have chosen to excerpt are hard-hitting examinations of topics ranging from censorship, pornography, and the battle of the sexes (Sarah Daniels’ Masterpieces) to the art of making art (Barker’s Bite of the Night, which says that sometimesas in politics and sausage-makingthe process isn’t something you want to watch). One, A Hard Heart, is partly a parable about the compromises made for the sake of survival that threaten to destroy everything that makes survival worthwhile. The snippet performed here is striking for its lyricism and the gravity that Mary Ellen Nester and Laura Giannarelli bring to their roles; the playwright, again, is Howard Barker, an indecently gifted writer.
There’s a high-minded draft resister’s pacifist apologia from Daniel Berrigan’s Trial of the Catonsville Nine; though it could easily sound flatly sanctimonious, Alan Wade delivers it with believable outrage. If you’re at all susceptible to ringing rhetoric, it’s a chill-bump moment. Less impressive is an overlong slice from Wendy Hammond’s Family Life, a desperately unfunny take on the dysfunctional nuclear family; it’s an old subject that wants nuance if any new light is to be shed on it, and the playwright doesn’t seem to understand the concept. Near the end of the “collage,” though, director Cheryl Faraone banishes all doubts about the acuteness of her own dramatic sensibilities when she elides excerpts from two texts to stunning effect. From a precarious height, a winsome, fragile Anna Belknap declaims a series of apocalyptic rhapsodies from Jose Rivera’s Marisol like some deranged, ecstatic child prophet, while below, the remarkably versatile John Lescault bewails a virulent plague in lines from Peter Barnes’ Red Noses. Without the complete framework of the two plays for context, it’s impossible to know exactly who these people are and why they’re so perturbed. Two separate worlds are crashing around two very different individuals, the foundations of two societies are crumbling before their eyes, and yet the texts are so well married that they could be two voices describing the same horror. It’s impossibleperhaps because of the thrilling arc of the language, perhaps because of the very vagueness of the looming threatto escape unmoved.
As if all that weren’t enough, the company returns after intermission for Chesley’s The Dog Plays, three short dialogues that constitute a pithy one-act on AIDS (blessedly, the playwright is subtle enough that the word isn’t mentioned until precisely halfway through). It’s a perceptive piece of work, and Jim Petosa’s direction is so on-target that, seconds after the play begins, as James Patrick Sheehan skulks onto the set in jeans, leather jacket, and boots, the milieu is established; you know instantly who this man is (single, gay, unhappy), where he is (a gay bar), and what’s going to happen (something unpleasant but necessary for his humanity), all before he says a word. It’s a worthy effort, even outstanding at times. John Lescault is perhaps a trifle too muchtoo ferocious as the deteriorating Buck, too mannered as the prissy Fidowhile Henning Hegland, though he has a promising stage presence, doesn’t quite seem to understand the mystical import of Lad’s dream monologue (he’s a college junior; give him time). But Sheehan, the central character, blends self-pity with resilience and anger in convincing proportions, and his gentle, palpable regret in the final scene is heartbreaking.
In light of the aggressive intelligence with which PTP pursues its theatrical ends, it’s especially perplexing that anyone should observe, as Carl Sumter does in the press release announcing the founding of Spectrum Theater Company, that we poor, deprived Washingtonians “need to know that there’s more out there than Thorton [sic] Wilder and Neil Simon.” Really?
To help fill this wholly imaginary vacuum, Spectrum offers a production of Streamers, David Rabe’s 1976 reflection on Vietnam (and more generally on the warlike nature of us all), which has been described as one of the decade’s best dramas. The play, set in a Virginia army barracks in 1965, is marked by an intense compassion for human failings, even though its views on one or two issues (especially homosexuality) now seem decidedly quaint.
It’s also riddled with subtle ironies of the sort that emerge clearly only in the hands of a sensitive director (a black soldier joins whites in suggesting that the queer would have no problem if he’d just learn his place, for instance). Sumter is anything but sensitive, though, and the kindest way to characterize the result would be to say that this new company has overreached itselfespecially as two of the actors involved (Scott Fortier and David Lamont Wilson) show a degree of promise. But the arrogance behind Sumter’s ridiculous comment makes me feel less charitable than I might be otherwise; Spectrum’s Streamers, to put it plainly, is the most militantly awful evening of theater to hit Washington since TheatreConspiracy’s Theodora, She-Bitch of Byzantium.CP