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By RAVEN SNOOK
The dramas of Howard Barker, a prolific, politically-charged British playwright who calls his work the Theatre of Catastrophe, are not for the weak. Five-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell knows that firsthand. During previews for the Potomac Theatre Project's revival of The Castle, about a group of men who return from the Crusades to find the women have taken over, she hurt her back while lugging around a (thankfully fake) decomposing body. Both riveting and revolting, the scene encapsulates the polarizing nature of the play and Barker's oeuvre in general.
"He's pretty unproducible," Maxwell says, chuckling. "But I love doing his plays. His language is so beautiful and dense. It's like modern Shakespeare. My husband [actor Robert Emmet Lunney] and I even used part of The Castle in our marriage vows: 'Love is in the cooking and the washing and the milking, no matter what, the color of the love stains everything.'"
Lunney actually introduced Maxwell to PTP back in 1989, when he was starring in an earlier revival of The Castle by the company in Washington D.C. He suggested she audition, and ultimately she was cast as Ann, "a changed woman" who spurns her warrior husband's advances when he returns after a seven-year absence. This time around, Maxwell plays Ann's lover, Skinner, "a witch" with an acid tongue, a palpable hatred of men, and no children. "Ann is fecund and Skinner is barren, and that dichotomy is hard on her," says Maxwell. "Skinner is this mother-of-the-earth type, and yet she's not the mother of anyone. That really nags at her."
This is Maxwell's fifth collaboration with the 27-year-old PTP, which marks its seventh season in New York City with The Castle and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money playing in rep at Atlantic Stage 2. One reason the high-profile actress keeps coming back to this small Off-Broadway troupe is that it's the only professional theatre company in the U.S. that regularly mounts Barker's work. (In fact, she and her husband, along with PTP co-artistic director Richard Romagnoli, even launched the Barker Project, a reading series of his plays, in 1998.)
"I've done three Barker plays with them: Victory: Choices in Reaction, Scenes from an Execution and The Castle, and I'd always wanted to revisit this one," Maxwell says. "So many parts of it hit me hard. We've had many, many discussions about what it all means."
She continues, "I like that Barker is so hard on everybody, including himself. Political theatre can be so preachy, but he'll preach one thing and then change his mind so the characters end up contradicting themselves. Barker says he doesn't trust people who don't contradict themselves. And it's true: We all contradict ourselves in order to justify our actions."
Out of all the characters in the show, Skinner is one of the wildest. Enraged that the men have returned and worried that she'll be forced to give up the woman and community she loves, she is ferocious in both word and deed. In addition to emotionally intense monologues that demand close attention, Maxwell tackles multiple lesbian love/hate scenes, berates and moons the men, and totes around the aforementioned corpse.
Much of Skinner's arc is unpleasant to be sure, but Maxwell says she appreciates that Barker writes "strong, unsympathetic female characters. If you're upset by certain words"-the C-word is a favorite of the playwright's-"it can be hard. But if you get past that and work to understand what's going on, you'll find the play is gruesome and funny and hateful. It's quite a ride!"
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo of Jan Maxwell (left) and Jennifer Van Dyck by Stan Barouh