Howard Barker’s The Europeans, currently getting its U.S. premiere at Atlantic Stage II courtesy of the Potomac Theatre Project, vividly depicts a skewed moral universe in the aftermath of war in which the most lingering nightmare may be the collective human tendency to learn so little. But the complex, often challenging, and sometimes gravely funny play resists simple characterization — and, to its credit, avoids reduction to one simple message. While not easy to digest or fully appreciate in one viewing, the play is fascinating and provocative, and the production, guided by Richard Romagnoli, is often compelling.
Perhaps to underline the repetition of human history, the play is set following a religious war between Christianity and Islam that takes place in the late 1600s in Vienna. But the playwright puts us on alert immediately by using striking anachronisms to make us listen intently and to engage with the play not as a realistic depiction of history but as a charged theatricalized environment for a multitude of his big ideas. Barker even calls into question even some of our most basic assumptions, with dense monologues in which notions of good and evil are shrewdly toyed with, and he provocatively frustrates narrative expectations.
On the simplest level, the play’s events center on war hero Starhemberg (Robert Emmet Lunney, in a nuanced and captivating performance) and war victim Katrin (the excellent Aidan Sullivan), who have each been profoundly changed by the conflict with the Turks. Barker populates the play with archetypes — a priest, an Emperor, an artist — who lack the capacity to make meaningful sense of the war and who generally want to return to the old order. They want to glorify and honor Starhemberg, but he refuses to comply, instead honoring Katrin who, having been raped and impregnated at the hands of Turk soldiers, insists on making a public exhibition of her childbirth and thus becomes an inconvenience to the State.
By its nature, the material resists a single unifying tone, as it reaches from Katrin’s harrowing account of her rape to pithy social satire of church and state. Still, the production (which benefit from a strong supporting cast) does a remarkable job of presenting the play coherently and often with great impact.