It’s always the day after the apocalypse for Howard Barker. In “The Europeans,” one of the writer’s earlier nightmares, Barker levels the playing field with the end of a devastating war, one that sets peasants, priests, monarchs and generals against each other as they try to rebuild atop the rubble. Adroitly mounted by PTP/NYC and adorned with Mark Evancho’s surprisingly good projection-heavy set, the populous, complicated, unexpectedly funny 1990 play gets the American premiere it deserves from helmer Richard Romagnoli and a dedicated 14-member cast.
Two events set the play in motion: the brutal rape of peasant woman Katrin (Aidan Sullivan) and the homecoming of General Starhemberg, the man who finally won the war by driving the Turks away from Vienna after a two-month siege.
Starhemberg, beautifully played by Robert Emmet Lunney, is one of the few people in Barker’s tale who isn’t anxious to forget the conflict and return to the status quo as quickly as possible. Katrin is one of the others. The two of them (and, it’s suggested, others who’ve been scarred badly enough) have learned something terrible about the world — something they forget at their peril.
Any efforts to educate the public about what the war actually meant, though, are met with gentle derision and deflective praise from the rest of the country. Starhemberg is a hero, Katrin a martyr. That’s all anyone wants to know. Epitomizing this willful ignorance is the glib Emperor Leopold (the very funny Brent Langdon), a Wildean caricature of feckless aristocracy who spews pithy witticisms that betray an understanding he staunchly refuses to admit. Leopold opens the play, standing among the wounded and frightened, saying, “I laugh.”
As for the church, Starhemberg’s friend Orphuls is a priest searching for meaning through gluttony and excess, breaking his vows at the drop of a skirt and letting his mind wander during the Eucharist. An excellent Robert Zukerman brings Orphuls to fat, happy life, and while the character’s polluted self-satisfaction makes for a number of good jokes, Zukerman’s unholy holy man seems to be honestly in search of something.
When he finds it (through a very old heresy called Gnosticism, revealed in a surprising speech near the play’s end), Zukerman pulls the comic-relief rug out from under us.
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a play this bleak and then call it “The Europeans.” But that’s Barker’s point: Destruction on a massive scale seems to be something of a human habit. When Starhemberg tells Leopold that he and the Viennese had been reduced to eating dogs, Leopold simply says, “Dogs, have you? And not the last time dogs will stand in for pastry.”
The script is loosely based on actual events (Vienna really was under siege several times, and an officer named Starhemberg really did end the 1683 attack), but there are enough anachronisms here to let us know Barker is not using the setting to assign background reading. Instead, he’s borrowing a milieu that suits his philosophy and populating it with his own characters — broad-stroke parable refugees who might be comfortable in a Brecht play.
Romagnoli clearly understands that philosophy (Barker has penned manifestos, as well as plays) and has taken it to heart. Here, Romagnoli gives Barker’s “theater of catastrophe” startling life, pulling us into a world where the worst has already happened and daring us to react intelligently to it. It’s a direct challenge, and a difficult one, as the play’s sole artist (Rishabh Kashyap) points out.
“You were never this perceptive on the battlefield,” accuses Leopold.
“No,” the painter replies. “I was too cold.”