By Beatrice Williams-Rude
What do you get when you mix Berthold Brecht, Brendan Behan and George Bernard Shaw? The brilliant Howard Barker, whose pithy, biting, thought-provoking black comedy Pity in History is now on view in Manhattan thanks to the Potomac Theatre Project/NYC. It marks the stage debut for the work which had been a teleplay commissioned by the BBC in 1984.
The play places the English Civil War (1642-1651) in the present. While the work is easily accessible to those with little knowledge of English history, it helps if one is at least acquainted with the issues and philosophies that ferociously divided the Republicans (Cromwell) and the Monarchists (King Charles I). While ostensibly about religion (and heaven help the atheists!) it’s also about class, and all that that connotes.
The work takes place in a cathedral where Murgatroyd, wonderfully well played by Jonathan Tindle lies dying. He’s a cook, not a soldier, and can’t understand why God allowed him to be shot.
In a role that is almost Shakespearean, Gaukroger, a mason, artist, bystander, victim, observer, commentator who, as his work is being destroyed, philosophically notes the cycles of history. (What the Puritans are shown doing in this play the armies of Charles V did in Rome in 1527 and ISIS has been doing now—blowing up ancient artifacts—wherever it holds sway.) Steven Dykes’s mason is both everyman and larger than life as he elucidates the playwright’s thoughts and observations on war and the human condition. His splendid portrayal is earthy and all-encompassing. (As he is railing—hilariously—about the absence of a pickle in his lunch it might add to understanding if one were aware that the Puritans (also known as Republicans/Roundheads/Parliamentarians) banned virtually all pleasures including Christmas feasts.)
The theme is the carnage that results from the conviction that “God is on our side.” Interestingly, the chaplain, in a carefully nuanced performance by Christopher Marshall, is the most reasonable of the army members noting that Jesus was against idolatry, not against property, to which the response was that there was no difference. (In 1840, long after the English Civil War, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon opined, “Property is theft.”)
While the characters exist to espouse the playwright’s views they are all carefully crafted—flesh and blood individuals: the mason’s apprentice, Pool, appealingly played by Matt Ball; Boys, a sergeant, convincingly played by Christo Grabowski; Factor, an officer, effectively embodied by Jay Dunn.
Mostly we were among the Republicans, who were occupying the cathedral, but there were acerbic observations across party lines. Arguably, the most despicable character is one of the Royalists (also known as Monarchists/Cavaliers). Mrs. Venables is so appalled at the destruction in the cathedral she gratuitously commits murder, stabbing the already dying cook who’d been placed in a crypt to keep his piteous groans and politically incorrect comments from the ears of the soldiers. The wealthy widow is an art lover who had hired the mason to decorate her late husband’s tomb for which he created “perfect angels’ wings.” She is, however, loath to pay him although she retains her fortune, now safely in Calais. Mrs. Venables is elegantly performed by the sleek, soignée Kathleen Wise.
The splendid direction is by Richard Romagnoli, who hones the dark comic lines even as the brutality of battle remains front and center. Scenic design is by Mark Evancho; lighting by Hallie Zieselman; costumes by Danielle Nieves; sound design by Cormac Bluestone. Casting is color-blind as well as sex-blind with two women playing male soldiers.
In sum, kudos for Howard Barker and all the members of the company. Bravissimo!
Pity in History, now in previews, officially opens on Tuesday, July 18. It will run in repertory with Arcadiathrough August 6, at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Aves. in Manhattan).
Photos: Stan Barouh