Better late than never for Howard Barker’s “A Hard Heart,” Epic Theater Ensemble’s U.S. preem of the Brit scribe’s 1992 foray into wartime politics. In fact, better late than early: Barker’s play takes dead aim at political excesses that were not a factor in America when it was first written, and it now scans not merely as a warning, but an accusation. As with his “Scenes From an Execution,” Barker’s moral labyrinth is built in a Brechtian, quasi-fantastic landscape with queens, generals and wars cut from whole cloth. The distancing effect is deceptive for a play that talks about our world, and with director Will Pomerantz’s crackerjack cast to point the finger, the indictment lands with startling force.
There’s a Chinook Indian ceremony called a potlatch, in which members of warring tribes gain status by destroying progressively more precious possessions in order to demonstrate their desire for victory. It’s that kind of warfare that Riddler (Kathleen Chalfant) bets will win a long war for Praxis (Melissa Friedman), the queen who has employed her for her strategic brilliance. As Riddler sets a series of ingenious traps with more and more valuable bait, Praxis and others begin to question the importance of victory: If we give up everything, what are we defending?
Riddler is an austere, loveless, arrogant woman. With the total lack of ego it takes to portray such a supremely conceited person, Chalfant sinks her teeth into the role and never lets go, showing warmth only to her spoiled son Attila (James Wallert) and joy only as a side effect of pride. Barker clearly loves her; he’s found a nasty character whose glib brilliance perfectly suits his aphoristic writing style.
Wallert’s performance is equally remarkable. His blustery Attila is likable and blessedly funny, despite being someone whom his own mother describes as “a somewhat unimpressive fragment of our culture for whom I entertain these incomprehensible feelings of love.” He spends most of the show dressed in an ascot, a light shirt and trousers, suspenders, and white shoes, but his bearing manages to distinctly suggest a Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. In a play with so many serious ideas flapping around, Wallert keeps Attila airborne through sheer weightlessness and hot air.
Narelle Sissons has set the stage with a huge freight container surrounded by piles of old clothes from which actors emerge. There’s nothing inherently scary about the objects themselves, but their juxtaposition (and the many transformations of the big box) is unsettling, and Pomerantz has directed the whole equation to generate a feeling of approaching doom.
Epic is in the business of finding quality work by unrecognized talent (Kate Fodor’s “Hannah and Martin” being a prime example), but it’s a shame that Barker continues to languish in relative obscurity in this country. Perhaps this will be the production that puts his familiar, imaginary landscapes on the map.