Potomac Theater Project, in association with Vermont's Middlebury College theater program, launches its 27th repertory season, their seventh consecutive in New York, July 3 to August 4, with two fascinating chestnuts. The company will present at Atlantic Stage 2 the New York premiere of English playwright Howard Barker's crusader epic The Castle and a return engagement of the troupe's 2012 revival of English playwright Caryl Churchill's financial satire Serious Money.
Five-time Tony nominee and two-time Drama Desk winner Jan Maxwell stars in The Castle, her fifth PTP collaboration. At the production's helm is company co-artistic director Richard Romagnoli.
Maxwell says that some of the best experiences of her life have been with PTP in the DC area and here. "I've been fortunate to play some great roles with them," she relates. "They're the only American company I know of that produces Howard Barker's plays. Rob [her husband, actor Robert Emmet Lunney] was in DC in 1989 in the male lead of PTP's The Castle. That's how I became acquainted with the company. Rob suggested I audition. I did and was hired for a month of performances that summer in Georgetown." It was her introduction to the amazingly prolific English playwright Howard Barker, who's had over 65 works produced just in the UK, and that doesn't include radio plays. He coined the term theater of catastrophe to describe his own work. "He's an incredible writer and I love his plays," says Maxwell.
The Castle is described as an epic work, "blasting apart – with humor and violence – the boundaries of desire, pain, and sexuality." After an absence of seven years, a group of crusaders returns home to find authority, religion, and life as they knew it upended. A new society has been established by the women left behind. Battle lines are drawn.
One of the things that drew Maxwell to Barker, she says, "is his ability to write strong, unsympathetic female characters. His plays aren't easy. Many characters are even — dare I say — unlikable. But his writing — whether poetic, dirty, gruesome, sexy, or funny — is brilliant. He can go from bawdy humor to deep love to horrific torture within seconds. His plays aren't easy for actors or audiences. I think that's how Barker likes it. Richard (Romagnoli) is as passionate about Barker as I am. We've worked together so often now, we can practically foresee the spirited discussions, arguments, and battles over the interpretation of the text. But even if we sometimes yell, we actually love and respect each other. We know that ultimately we want what's best for the story. You don't get to be in rooms like that often, and in the big picture I feel lucky to be there, lucky to be doing Barker."
In 1998, to spread their love for the playwright, Jan and Rob, in association with Romagnoli, began a reading series, the Barker Project. To date they've produced about a dozen Barker plays. Maxwell is appreciative of the support for PTP from Middlebury College, where the bulk of rehearsals take place. "Frankly, we wouldn't be here without their help. It's also an opportunity for their theater students. They work with us and I'm always knocked out by their passion and talent — not to mention their dedication, hard work, and patience with us old folk! We rehearse for two weeks in gorgeous Vermont, living in dorms and all — then bring the plays into New York."
PTP was founded in 1987 and specializes in political theater. Their mandate, according to Romagnoli "is presenting highly theatrical and thought-provoking work of contemporary social and cultural relevance." He noted that in their 26 seasons, PTP has presented plays about art, pornography, AIDS, homelessness, censorship, totalitarianism, apartheid, and gender wars.
During 20 seasons in Washington, DC and Maryland, PTP produced 75 mainstage productions, earning seven Helen Hayes Award nominations. Since moving to New York in 2007 and becoming affiliated with Middlebury College theater program, the company has produced 15 mainstage productions. Their mounting of Barker's Scenes from an Execution earned Maxwell a 2009 Drama Desk nomination.
Playing in repertory has its ups and downs, she notes. "You do a show, then you're off a couple of days. But it's great to be in rep with Serious Money, such a great play by Caryl Churchill. Both plays are crazy fun and crazy exhausting, so I think rep is the only way we all could survive. One of the ups is that we get to see the other play. Well, except for cast members David Barlow and Stephen Dykes — they're in both. That's Herculean. I bow to them!"