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Theatre in Review: Judith: A Parting from the Body/Vinegar Tom (Potomac Theatre Project)

Tara Giordano, Steven Dykes, in Vinegar Tom. Photo: Stan Barouh.

Potomac Theatre Project kicks off its season with a two-part meditation on women, history, and power, by the company's two favorite playwrights. This is not a double bill calculated to make new fans of Howard Barker or Caryl Churchill, however; one work is hampered by its author's mannerisms, and the other is looking rather long in the tooth, both ideologically and stylistically.

Judith: A Parting from the Body is Barker's take on the Biblical story of Judith, the Jewish widow who beguiles, then beheads, Holofernes, the Assyrian general and oppressor of her people. At the least, it should be the basis for a taut, tension-filled situation, but drama appears to be the last thing on Barker's mind; instead, the characters carry on like the attendees at an obscure academic conference, spinning abstractions and pursuing the perfect metaphor. Here's Holofernes, alone, contemplating the battle set to take place the next day:

"Tonight I must talk about death. For example, its arbitrary selections. This I find impossible to assimilate. This I find agony to contemplate. Its fingering of one. Its indifference to another. Its beckoning to one. Its blindness to another. This haunts me, this casualness. This gnaws my curiosity. I might say this quality in death has governed my emotions and made battle precious."

He goes on like this for some time, sounding increasingly like a graduate student who has overdosed on Michel Foucault. Eventually, Judith shows up with her servant (called The Servant and billed in the program as "an Ideologist," whatever that means in this context.) But Holofernes makes it clear that he isn't interested in Judith's charms ("I do not wish to fuck tonight," he says, ungallantly). Instead, all three settle down for a little symposium on the meaning of death. Holofernes, making the keynote speech, as it were, says, "I think it is the persistence of proximity of Death, who lurks in all the interstices of life and cannot be abolished, which justifies the military profession. I think it is abhorrent only to those who lack the intellectual courage to recognize it for what it is -- the organization of a metaphor."

Judith, no slouch when it comes to oration disguised as small talk, says, "I believed I was unhappy because I was widowed. But my widowing merely licensed me to show myself for what I am. Everyone else must laugh and smile and greet each other, hoisting their children in the air and acting the perfect neighbor, whereas I am privileged to wear a melancholy face." And the servant, opting to lecture Holofernes, takes to her own soapbox: "You must give people rights. You must give them their powers over you. Like I step off the pavement for a beggar if he curses me. What has he got? Nothing. Nothing but his curse. I yield him that. I give him his paltry power. So we with you, you must give the woman something to hold over you." It was around this point that I thought to myself, They're not going to behead him until they've talked our ears off.

Rest assured, the brutal deed is finally done, during a pause between scenes, followed by a ludicrous sequence in which Judith decides to mount Holofernes' corpse, which still maintains an erection, then finds it impossible to get off. When she finally disconnects, so to speak, she has undergone a transformation, treating The Servant with callous disregard. Barker seems to be suggesting that a kind of transfer of savagery takes place, but, both in the writing and under Richard Romagnoli's direction, there is a distinct absence of menace, not to mention any sense of shifting power dynamics, underlying the characters' orotund speeches. Even when he comes up with an exchange that has some snap in it (Holofernes: "I have no equal in the field I have made my specialty." Judith: "Which field is that? Murder or philosophy?"), it never develops into anything like a scene.

You can't even fault Barker for writing stilted dialogue, since he seems to have spent most of his career in pursuit of an ambiguous and anti-dramatic theatre of ideas, but that doesn't make Judith any easier to sit through. It's particularly painful to see three skilled pros -- Pamela J. Gray (Judith), Alex Draper (Holofernes), and Patricia Buckley (The Servant) -- struggle to find something to play. Hallie Zieselman's set and Mark Evancho's lighting are both pretty basic, but Mira Veikley, working from Jule Emerson's original design, dresses the characters attractively, outfitting Holofernes like a Nazi storm trooper. Cormac Bluestone's sound design features some pounding, percussive incidental music, and cues signaling Holofernes' men, offstage, practicing firing their guns.

There's a palpable sense of relief as soon as Vinegar Tom begins, because Churchill -- a playwright through and through -- comes to the rescue with highly speakable dialogue and a situation brimming with dramatic possibilities. We're in a small village in the North of England sometime in the 17th century, and the author wastes no time in sketching in a community riven by sexual tensions and material envy. Alice, a feisty young single mother, yearns to make it legal with the strange man who recently engaged her in a lusty romp -- if she can find him again. Young Susan is pregnant and not at all happy about it. Betty, the daughter of the local gentry, has run afoul of her parents for refusing to marry the man they've picked out. All three visit the local "cunning woman," seeking charms to solve their dilemmas -- a big mistake when anti-witch hysteria sets in. Also fanning the flames: Susan is chased by Jack, whose farm is failing and whose wife, Margery, is seemingly barren; Margery is involved in a bitter dispute with Joan, Susan's mother. Before long, accusations are made, and Packer, a kind of witchfinder general, shows up to hand out unspeakable tortures to several female innocents.

Vinegar Tom isn't dull, thanks to Churchill's neat way with a scene, but neither is it especially gripping, since its main point -- that, in a community poisoned by superstition, ordinary grievances are all too easily turned into charges of Satan worship -- is so well-worn: If you've ever seen The Crucible, you're familiar with the territory. The author's main innovation -- that this is really a system designed to punish women who don't conform to traditional norms -- is exhaustively established and, by now, has lost its novelty. Churchill's most brazenly theatrical conceit, a trio of young women dressed in contemporary clothes who show up every so often with swinging musical commentary, doesn't deliver the required jolt of electricity; this sort of Brechtian gambit may have been all the rage in 1976, when Vinegar Tom was first staged, but it feels pretty musty today. (The songs aren't all that exciting, either.)

Still, under Cheryl Faraone's direction, Vinegar Tom benefits from a lively, engaged cast. Tara Giordano's Alice is believably tough on the surface and needy underneath. Bill Army's Jack is every bit the kind of monster who can proffer sweet nothings one minute and vile denunciations the next -- without ever grasping his essential monstrousness. Lucy Faust is appealing as Ellen, the purveyor of charms and potions, mostly out of the goodness of her heart. Steven Dykes is equally convincing as Alice's deceptive bed partner and the equally genial and cruel Packer. Best of all is Buckley, the only performer to appear in both plays, who etches a blood-chilling cameo as Goody, Packer's icily efficient assistant.

Zieselman adapts the Judith set neatly for Vinegar Tom, which has far more interesting lighting, also by Evancho, who makes good use of low side units and spinning patterns to create a world of festering suspicion. Annie Ulrich's costumes are solid, as is Aubrey Dube's sound, which combines a throbbing bass line, wind chimes, and whispering voices to eerie effect.

All told, Judith and Vinegar Tom add up to a rather long and labored evening, in which the needs of drama are subordinated to each playwright's need to instruct the audience. This one is for hard-core fans of Barker and Churchill only. -- David Barbour


(14 July 2015)

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