English playwrights and salacious profanities are the centerpieces of Potomac Theatre Project this summer. The two plays the company has chosen for its five-week repertory season (now playing Atlantic Stage 2) are Howard Barker's 1985 play The Castle and Caryl Churchill's 1987 play Serious Money, a production that PTP/NYC presented last season as well. Both Barker and Churchill offer uniquely stylized, heavily verbal pieces with sexual content and cuss words that could make even the most foulmouthed sailor blush. The strong company of actors does justice to their substantial content, but you may leave feeling as though your brain has doubled in weight since taking your seat.
Barker's The Castle is the standout between the two productions, due in no small part to the breathtaking performance of five-time Tony Award nominee Jan Maxwell, who has performed with PTP/NYC in two previous Barker plays (Victory: Choices in Reaction in 2011 and Scenes From an Execution, which earned her a 2008 Drama Desk Award nomination). Set in 12th century England in an imagined society, its female citizens have gutted their culture of all religion and hierarchical structure since their men went off to fight in the Crusades. When the men return, they are horrified to find their society in shambles and elect for an engineer named Krak (played by a thoughtful Quentin Maré) to construct a castle as a symbol of reclaimed order. A minimalist set, designed by Jon Craine, has the performers tearing down flowing pieces of green fabric to reveal an angular environment as the castle approaches completion.
Maxwell plays a witch named Skinner whose adamant rejection of the former patriarchy is illustrated by her romantic relationship with a married woman named Ann (Jennifer Van Dyck). However, Ann's husband, Stucley (played by David Barlow who delivers some of the play's most satisfying rants about divine cruelty), has just returned home from battle and is still deeply in love with her, as well. Though Van Dyck offers a strong performance as the object of several characters' affections, Maxwell outshines everyone with her heartbreakingly vulnerable monologues. The dense, pseudo-Shakespearean language flows effortlessly from her, offering the audience moments of relief from the strain of following Barker's difficult text. Director Richard Romagnoli also does an admirable job of navigating the play's muddy waters.
While The Castle throws out an overwhelming barrage of social and philosophical puzzles, the prospect of continuing to wrestle with them after leaving the theater is invigorating. The only invigorating prospect after sitting through Serious Money, on the other hand, is a hot shower to wash away the grime.
Churchill, in her signature political style, places us in the late 1980s in the wake of London's "Big Bang" — a term used to describe the period following Margaret Thatcher's deregulation of London's banking system, which launched it into the forefront of world finance. We follow a group of money-grubbing British and American financiers who have traded in their collective sense of moral decency for a fat bank account: perfect bait for any Occupiers who happen to be in the audience. They wheel and deal in a world that contains countless telephones and chandeliers made of champagne bottles (designed by Hallie Zieselman).
A dealer on the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange (LIFFE) named Scilla (played by a perfectly cold-hearted Tara Giordano) investigates the mysterious death of her brother Jake (Matthew Niktare), though her pursuit is not fueled by grief but rather by a hunger for the fortune he has left behind. David Barlow deserves particularly high praise for balancing his featured role in The Castle with another densely wordy role in Serious Money. He plays the slick Zac Zackerman, an American banker who plots a company takeover while intermittently addressing the audience directly to narrate the plot.
The actors speak almost exclusively in rhyming couplets while spouting off finance lingo that even the most savvy Wall Streeter would find difficult to follow. Each act also concludes with a Brechtian musical number (music by Micky Gallagher and lyrics by Ian Dury). Cheryl Faraone effectively latches onto Churchill's melodic sensibilities, directing the sing-songy script with a precise rhythm. The resulting atmosphere is an exclusive world populated by adult children who engage in a never-ending game of greed, captured by their Seussian wordplay.
Though Churchill's work is both ingeniously crafted and admirably executed, being forced to exist in such a disgusting world for nearly two-and-a-half hours is a thoroughly unpleasant experience. No, theater is not required to always conjure feelings of pleasure, but a production with such a medicinal taste is a tough sell for even the most tolerant theatergoer. It should be noted, however, that the play enjoyed an extended run on the West End in 1987 while it closed after only 15 post-opening performances on Broadway in 1988. Serious Money may simply require an audience with a British threshold for discomfort — something I do not possess.