The plays and poetry of Howard Barker are an acquired taste, one faithfully nurtured by helmer Richard Romagnoli during his tenure as co-artistic director of the Potomac Theater Project. “Gary the Thief,” in which the narrator rails at the “monkeys” he outwits, might make a nice curtain-raiser for “Claw,” or any other Barker play featuring one of his dispossessed antiheroes. “Plevna,” an account of a battle in the Russo-Turkish wars, would be a natural introduction to “Scenes From an Execution,” or any other of the scribe’s historically sensitive dramas. But two static curtain-raisers do not an evening of theater make.
As inhabited by Robert Emmet Lunney, who performs the first-person narrative poem with a plummy accent but without benefit of technical support, Gary the thief is one of Barker’s classic angry outsiders.
“I live among you / Hating you,” he informs the “cattle” whose possessions he steals. “My defense lies in your opulence,” he explains. “Your greed dwarfs my offense.” But aside from the strength of the language he uses to excoriate his victims, Gary’s antisocial barbs don’t carry much sting.
“Plevna: Meditations on Hatred” is made of sterner stuff, and Alex Draper, although forced to perform in the same visual black hole, seems more contented with his lot. Dressed in evening clothes (shirt unbuttoned, tie undone) and carrying a drink, he seems to assume we’re all familiar with Plevna, the killing field of three atrocious 18th-century battles in which Russian forces pulverized the defending Turks.
Once again, Barker’s tough language and visceral imagery convey his theme of the raw hatred that turns warring men into beasts. Men don’t kill with rational motive, he says, but in a contrived “fellowship” that denies the enemy any humanity of his own.
“In wars of culture, it is never enough to be dead,” Draper explains — cheerfully waving his glass — of the savage mutilations committed on this and other battlefields. “The enemy shall have no character.”
Even in blank verse, Barker’s blunt warnings could easily carry over into a companion piece. Here, they end in a blackout.