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Volume 77, Number 23 | November. 07 -,13 2007

Villager Theater Guide
A Villager Special Supplement

Photo by Richard Blinkoff

Kathleen Chalfant stars in Howard Barker’s “A Hard Heart,” this month at the Harold Clurman Theatre.

Here’s the disaster news, Mr. Rumsfeld

By Jerry Tallmer

Howard Barker, born 1946, is a British poet, playwright, essayist, theorist, and theatrical-political-intellectual goad whose works are all but unknown in this country and not all that widely appreciated in his own. Calling his stuff “Theatre of Catastrophe,” he is elder statesman of The Wrestling School, a group formed in 1988 by actors of the Royal Court and Royal Shakespeare companies for the sole purpose of wrestling with and staging the plays of Howard Barker.

That’s just what Kathleen Chalfant has been doing lately — wrestling her way into the words and ideas of “A Hard Heart,” the gnomic Howard Barker drama now in previews toward its November 11 New York premiere under the direction of Will Pomerantz at the Harold Clurman Theatre on West 42nd Street.

Ms. Chalfant plays a woman with the odd name of Riddler — “a Woman of Originality,” the script specifies — who is tactically in charge of the defenses of a nameless city under siege in some distant time and place. There are overtones, certainly, of ancient Troy. Everyone in the piece has an odd name: Attila, Riddler’s namby-pamby Oedipal son; Seemore, a vagrant who has the hots for Riddler; Plevna, the general who takes orders from Riddler; Praxis, the queen whose city may topple to the enemy at any moment.

To bewilder that enemy — with shock and awe, you might say — Riddler thinks up a plan that will move the towers of the city around on rails made of timber, and sketches it out in a set of drawings —

“This is very clever, but … ,” says the queen.

“Please don’t call it clever,” Riddler protests. “It diminishes it. It humiliates a person of profoundest thought to be called clever … [This plan] is far beyond cleverness … This is the personification of imagination and excruciating labour, I assure you. I was up until daylight tapped me on the shoulder.”

“Rails?” says the queen. “And where are rails to be discovered? There is no timber, as you perfectly well — ”

“There is timber,” Riddler coolly replies. “It is merely in the wrong place … Plenty of timber … Holding up the palace roof.”

“Wait,” cries queen. “Please wait … Please do not interpret this as an impertinence on our part — you certainly know this as well as me and I don’t know why I feel it necessary to remind you but … what we are defending is … [o]ur culture and our values which [are embodied in the palace] — ” 

“All right,” says Riddler, “it’ll have to be the temple … The swiftness of the machine will stagger them [the enemy] … You know how it works and so do I, it is only a matter of will.”

And so on and so forth, with one Riddler brainstorm after another, and another, and another. “The idea was not flawed, only the execution,” says Riddler after a shifting wind and the smell of baking bread undercuts one of her strokes of genius. “They should have consulted me. I could have predicted which way the wind would blow.”

Sound familiar? I mean even if Howard Barker was writing this in 1992, and it is now 2007, do we not hear the pre-footsteps of a Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention a George Bush) piling up one disaster after another?

“0h sure. Absolutely!” said the Kathleen Chalfant who is also an ardent political activist, when the question was put to her the other day. “On first reading, that’s the thing that strikes you so strongly. How many similarities there are with today — catastrophe after catastrophe — both by the person and the nation. And the ways in which we are all complicit.”

Of Rumsfeld in particular: “To appear to say the unsayable and thereby seize the high ground … when in fact you’re a maniac.”

The eminently sensible Chalfant, an actress whose bulging dossier of brilliance includes the shaved skull and final stark nudity of the dying-of-cancer Vivian in Margaret Edson’s “Wit,” laughed out loud as she now said, correspondingly, of Riddler: “I think she’s completely out of her mind. A wonderful part to play. Full of that intellectual and spiritual arrogance that’s so familiar in our leaders.

“At the same time,” the actress said, second-guessing herself, “this is a play that’s full of radical doubt. At first reading it’s easy to make a reductive application to what was going on at the time he wrote it — Thatcherism, and the fall of the Soviet Union — but for some of us, this was also a deeply unsettling thing … ”

Not as unsettling as something that happened before your time, before you birth, it was suggested — the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact.

“Yes, but with echoes of it. The entire Socialist ideal in ruins, leaving us in a fragmented world where there is no one left to speak for the poor.”

She has never met Howard Barker, and is not yet quite ready to.

“He’s a very dangerous writer, which is not easy to do or be. How to say a lot in the fewest possible words. His writing includes many essays about theater: very vigorous, very demanding, very contrarian. If we manage to do some sort of decent job with this play, I would later like to meet him.”

It was Zak Berman, one of the founders of the Epic Theatre Ensemble, who two or three years ago gave Ms. Chalfant a copy of “A Hard Heart” with an idea of Epic’s producing it some time or other. He himself, Berman said, had had his whole life changed, pointed toward theater, when as a youngster he was taken to London by his parents — his father’s Len Berman, “legendary head of the theater department at Smith College” — and had seen this very play.

New Yorkers will get to savor another aspect of Chalfant — “the love interest of Dominic Chianese” — in “The Last New Yorker,” director Harvey Wang’s entry in next month’s Big Apple Film Festival down in Tribeca.

And yet another aspect, this coming March, in Sara Ruhl’s newest, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” as directed by Anne Bogart at Playwrights’ Horizons. “I play a mom,” says mom Kathleen, whose offspring are record producer David Chalfant and set designer Andromache (“as in Hector”) Chalfant.

Actress Chalfant says that not knowing about Howard Barker “made me feel illiterate, as I often do.” We should all feel so illiterate.
A HARD HEART. By Howard Barker. Directed by Will Pomerantz. Now in previews toward November 11 opening as an Epic Theatre Ensemble production at the Harold Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, (212) 229-4200, or www.ticketcentral.com.

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