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A CurtainUp Review
Potomac Theatre Project / Pity in History & Arcadia in repertory
For the past 31 years, the intrepid Potomac Theater Project (PTP) has been campaigning on Barker's behalf by mounting the playwright's works, both major and minor, in New England, Washington D.C. and, more recently, New York City.
PTP is supported by Middlebury College, where two of its three founders are faculty members. Since 2007, the company has brought a summer repertory season to Manhattan under the banner of "PTP/NYC." These productions feature seasoned professionals (the incomparable Jan Maxwell was the company's doyenne until her 2015 farewell to the stage in the PTP production of Barker's Scenes from an Execution ); but they also utilize young performers, many of whom earn their Actors Equity cards through association with the shows.
The PTP folks are such thorough Barkerologists that they frequently remount plays they've done previously. Most seasons, they pair a Barker play with something by another writer, usually someone with a more readily recognizable name, such as Caryl Churchill or this year's choice, Tom Stoppard.
Currently PTP is offering Pity in History, a Barker television play from the 1980s which hasn't been done on stage before. Set in the middle of the 17th century, it depicts an English cathedral town besieged by Puritan rebels bent on destroying religious art and ecclesiastical architecture to undermine the established church.
Barker is known for using historical settings to reflect contemporary social and political issues. Pity in History concerns the perils of fanaticism and mob psychology and (as in Scenes from an Execution) the role of artistic expression in maintenance of a free society.
As a television script, Pity in History is a trifle static (to my American sensibility, it feels more 1970s than 1980s); but, for that reason, it works nicely as a stage play. It runs just over an hour and that brevity minimizes the customary Barkerian wear and tear on the audience.
Directed with attention to pace and visual composition by Richard Romagnoli (one of PTP's three founders), Pity in History features an estimable performance by Jonathan Tindle as the rebel battalion's cook, wounded by "friendly fire" and spouting social commentary while slowly shuffling off his mortal coil. Also noteworthy are Kathleen Wise as a widow who hopes that art and her inherited wealth will buy a sort of immortality for her late husband and herself; and Steven Dykes as the only local artist left in the wake of civil war to execute the widow's commission.
Arcadia, with agile dialogue reminiscent at times of Congreve and Sheridan, is Stoppard's tribute to 18th century high comedy. The play's action occurs in a stately home in Derbyshire, partly in 1809, as the age of enlightenment is giving way to the romantic era, and partly in a recent year (though one that predates smart phones). It's an expansive work that portrays a spider's web of relationships among 13 characters, with frequent jumps in chronology from the 19th to the 21st century and back again and a great deal of running hither and yon by the actors.
Directed by Cheryl Faraone (another PTP founder), Arcadia fits awkwardly in the confines of the Atlantic Theater's tiny 16th Street facility. Scenic designer Mark Evancho, whose work on Pity in History is exemplary, has created an obstacle course of furnishings and oddly arranged exits that Faraone's blocking and the actors' stage presence never overcome. In the past (and, also, this season in Pity in History), Evancho and lighting designer Hallie Zieselman have proved adept at using Atlantic Stage 2 effectively, generally by employing light and projections with a minimum of scenery and props.
The cast of Arcadia includes capable candidates for Actors Equity membership, such as Jackson Prince (newly graduated from Middlebury), working side by side and seamlessly with accomplished PTP veterans such as Alex Draper and Jonathan Tindle. But the production never effervesces as it should; and the wit of numerous passages is sacrificed to the languorous pace of direction and the almost lugubrious overall tone.
The surprise of this PTP summer repertory season is that Barker's play, lugubrious by design, proves more engaging than Stoppard's. That makes this a rare moment in theater history.
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In repertory: Pity in History by Howard Barker & Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Directors: Richard Romagnoli (Pity in History) & Cheryl Faraone (Arcadia)
Cast: Pity in History: Matt Ball (Pool), Kahari Blue (Sponge), Kaitlynd Collins (Apps), Jay Dunn (Factor), Steven Dykes (Gaukroger), Christo Grabowski (Boys), Victoria Jane Isquith (Skinner), Christopher Marshall (Croop), Sam Tompkins Martin (Spork), Jonathan Tindle (Murgatroyd), Kathleen Wise (Venables), Connor Wright (Spillman);
Arcadia: Megan Byrne (Lady Croom), Alex Draper (Bernard Nightingale), Steven Dykes (Captain Brice/Jellaby), Caitland Duffy (Thomasina Coverly), Manny Duran (Augustus Coverly/Gus Coverly), Stephanie Janssen (Hannah Jarvis), Sebastian LaPointe (Richard Noakes), Jackson Prince (Valentine Coverly), Eliza Renner (Chloe Coverly), Andrew William Smith (Septimus Hodge), Jonathan Tindle (Ezra Chater)
Scenic Design: Mark Evancho
Costume Design: Danielle Nieves (Pity in History) & Mira Veilkey (Arcadia
Lighting Design: Hallie Zieselman
Sound Design: Cormac Bluestone
Production Stage Managers: Devon Wein (Pity in History), Elizabeth Ann Goodman (Arcadia
Running Time: Pity in History 65 minutes, no intermission; Arcadia two hours, 45 minutes, with one intermission
Produced by PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project
Atlantics Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Opened 7/18/17 (Pity in History), 7/19/16 (Arcadia); closing 8/6/16 (both Pity in History and Arcadia
Reviewed by Charles Wright at July 16th press performances
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