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A Hard Heart

Howard Barker's anti-war play is turgid and pretentious. logo
Kathleen Chalfant and Thom Sesma
in A Hard Heart
(© Carol Rosegg)
The official with the stony organ mentioned in the title of Howard Barker's cautionary allegory A Hard Heart -- which was written in 1991 and originally broadcast on BBC radio -- declares that in times of war, torture is an acceptable practice. That political position is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Epic Theatre Ensemble is now putting the show on at Theatre Row. Clearly, the company believes the English playwright's grim script is relevant to a perilous time when a newly confirmed attorney general can be cagey about wartime information-gathering tactics. But, make no mistake, at no moment is a pretentious and turgid screed like this one relevant to anything.

The play's abundantly irritating features begin with the character names. Riddler (Kathleen Chalfant) has been hired by unnamed-country monarch Praxis (Melissa Friedman) to come up with thoroughly unsentimental strategies for vanquishing the army attacking from a dangerously close distance. Riddler seems the right choice for the job, because when she's at her drawing-board dreaming up tactics, she doesn't even have time to listen more than cursorily to whiny son Attila (James Wallert), whom she's effectively gotten excused from conscription.

Over the course of the endeavor's 100 uninterrupted minutes and amid sound designer Mark Huang's auditorium-rocking explosions, Riddler tries out a few ideas that initially work in Praxis' favor; but in the long, looooooooong run, they become less effective. Part of Riddler's problem is that she's passionately and relentlessly pursued by someone ludicrously called Seemore (Thom Sesma) and gives some indication of succumbing to his blandishments. Another problem is that Barker has chosen an ineffectively oblique way to lodge serious complaints about compromised measures adopted by wrong-headed governments.

Eventually, Riddler's plans don't have the desired effect, which is fatal for poor Praxis, who moves through the action in medieval robes while everyone else wears costumer Chris Rumery's more contemporary garb. But Praxis' fate may be preferable to taking in more of Riddler's blah-di-blah dialogue. "I hate to stop and gossip, even with a monarch," Riddler declares, "Our platitudes may bar an idea, like silt closes a harbor even to the most necessary cargoes." And Riddler isn't the only one speaking such hifalutin nonsense. Beaten for his seeing-more activities, Seemore says of his tormentors, "[They] thrashed me, but I've been thrashed before."

Narelle Sissons has designed the creepy, decrepit environment, and if there's one element to recommend in the production, it's her set -- which is dominated by a rusting wall that owes its look to sculptor Richard Serra's large and evocative structures. When its horizontal flaps open, they reveal a rundown chamber where Praxis presides and a narrower couple of levels that Riddler and Attila call home. Stage right is a pile of discarded clothes that has Holocaust connotations.

Pity the players, though. Directed with little hope by Will Pomerantz, the cast fights a battle with the script that proves as futile as the one being fought in Barker's queendom. Chalfant displays the required hard-hearted behavior but can't rise above the verbiage; so does Friedman, who otherwise looks terrific and has regal bearing. Dithering around like a wired Raggedy Andy doll, Sesma is lost, which compounds the woes he suffered last year in Twyla Tharp's misguided The Times They Are A-Changin'. The only one to emerge relatively unscathed is Wallert, who has some fun playing the spoiled bad boy.

When it comes to truly hardened hearts, the ones Barker might consider are those he's implanted in the besieged patrons of the misbegotten production.

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