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Victory: Choices in Reaction

victory01.jpg

Cast members of Victory: Choices in Reaction
Photo by Stan Barouh.

Reviewed: July 18, 2011
Venue: Atlantic Stage 2
Producers: Potomac Theater Project
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, with intermission

Creative Team:
Written by Howard Barker
Directed by Richard Romagnoli
Set Design by Hallie Zieselman
Costume Design by Carlie Crawford and Jule Emerson
Lighting Design by Mark Evancho
Sound Design by Allison Rimmer

Actors:
Steven Dykes as Scrope, Somerset, Ralph Undy
Willy McKay as Boot, McConochie, Ponting, Stanley Street, Beggar
Michael Kessler as Shade, Southwark, Edgbaston, Robert Parry
Mat Nakitare as Wicker, Nodd, Beggar
Alex Cranmer as Gaukroger, William Hambro, Footman, Milton
Jan Maxwell as Bradshaw
Robert Zukerman as Roast, Clegg, Moncrieff
Robert Emmet Lunney as Ball, Frank Mobberley
Michaela Lieberman as Cropper, Devonshire
David Barlow as Charles Stuart, Feak
Edelen McWilliams as Cleveland, Pyle, Hampshire
Ele Woods as Lady In Waiting, Gwynn, Brighton, Beggar

Crew:
Stage Managers: Michael Block, Melissa Nathan, Alex Mark

Puritans, Fops, and the Coming of Money

Director Richard Romagnoli does so many things right with Howard Barker's autopsy of power, desire, and money, Victory: Choices in Reaction. The script is vintage Barker, with equal measures of bombast and scathing observation delivered in dialogue fueled by adrenaline. The cast is uniformly strong, with David Barlow, Jan Maxwell, and Stephen Dykes offering up superb performances. Set changes, choreographed to the propulsive music of the Sex Pistols, are mini-plays within themselves, and Mr. Romagnoli's set, costume, and lighting designers create a rich, subtle, and full-blown world within the walls of the theatre.

The play's action is set in England in 1660 with the restoration of the monarch Charles II (David Barlow) after the brutal civil war and the collapse of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan commonwealth. Those who had opposed, and then killed, Charles' father are scattered to the winds, including Bradshaw (Jan Maxwell), the widow of John Bradshaw, who had pronounced the death sentence upon the king. When Charles II returned to the throne, he had Bradshaw's body disinterred and placed on public display, his rotted corpse a reminder of the fate of those who question the power of kings.

Bradshaw, now dispossessed of all, sets out with Scrope (Steven Dykes), John Bradshaw's secretary and still a true believer in the commonwealth, to collect her husband's "bits," in the process collecting for herself a new life in a very dangerous world.

But while the monarchy is restored, it is not the same monarchy. Charles can threaten and humiliate, but he cannot rule with a divine right. Power has shifted not only to Parliament but to the bankers, like William Hambro (Alex Cranmer), which Barker demonstrates in a scene just before intermission. The true wielders of power, Hambro and his associates, meet in the bowels of the bank next to the vault of gold to discuss and decide policy.

Charles shows up and is goaded by his friend, Nodd (Mat Nakitare), to give a gold ingot to a whore who's accompanied them on their visit. Charles fingers the keys to the vault but then pushes them away, saying that he cannot do that. He then proceeds to humiliate all those present with the preserved skull of John Bradshaw, but as Charles finally makes his retreat, Hambro says to one and all that the important thing is that Charles knows who pulls the levers of power: "The rest is shrill and squealing. Never mind the squeal. I don't."

By the end of the play we can see the outlines of the new shape of power. Ball (Robert Emmet Lunney), a cavalier who fought on the side of the king, believes still in divine right and absolute rule, but at the end of the play, he is a man broken on the rack with his tongue pulled out and suspected of treason. Equally so, Scrope, a true believer in radical egalitarianism, has his lips cut off and is tortured into irrelevance. All the idealists are disarmed; the only survivors are the ones with expandable morals, like Bradshaw or the mercantile class.

While Ms. Maxwell and Mr. Dykes give formidable performances, it is Mr. Barlow who holds center stage, bringing off Charles' rancid mix of adolescence, remorse, and self-loathing with authority. Mark Evancho's lighting design, especially toward the end of the action, plays with very subtle shifts of light, almost as if painting, and Hallie Zieselman's mobile set design can be moved from magnificence to mud in the blink of an eye.

Howard Barker's plays are not easy plays -- they don't wash over an audience but instead demand that the people in the theater, viewers and actors alike, engage in ideas, in ambiguities, in discomfort and impatience. The prize for this, of course, is the richness of the theatrical experience: as one critic has written, more happens in one scene of a Barker play that in entire plays by other writers.

Mr. Romagnoli manages this controlled mayhem with great skill, moving things briskly along (even in those scenes where Mr. Barker seems more taken by his own voice than by creating dramatic action). It's a long play, almost three hours in length, but its rewards are well-worth the time spent.

Michael Bettencourt

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